Paul Caccaviello, the incumbent, is facing off against challengers Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington in the September primary that will decide the next district attorney.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The three candidates for district attorney stuck to their talking points on Tuesday during a fast-paced forum sponsored by the Williamstown League of Women Voters.
Paul Caccaviello, Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington sought to impress the audience of at least 100 with their experience and progressive bona fides during the hourlong program in the Paresky Center auditorium on the Williams College campus. The session moderated by Kathy Campbell, a member of Amherst League of Women Voters, was recorded for later broadcast on WilliNet and other public television channels.
The aspirants for Berkshire district attorney fielded some two dozen questions from the audience and were given only a minute each to respond. There was no debate between the candidates but Caccaviello, the incumbent, and challenger Harrington had a few sharp words.
Harrington, a criminal and civil defense attorney who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate two years ago, has positioned herself as the modern answer to an "old guard" that's failed to keep up with the times.
Caccaviello, on the other hand, is defending the position he's held for four months as the experienced candidate with nearly 30 years in the district attorney's office and the prosecution of more than 5,300 cases.
But Harrington called him on the progressive stance he's taken on implementing and tracking racial bias within local law enforcement and the courts.
"When he started this campaign four months ago, he was talking about continuity and continuing the work that has been going on in the DA's office and now after sitting on a debate stage listening to myself and attorney Knight, he's now come to Jesus and confirmed racial bias in the criminal justice," she said. "This is not something that has been a priority of this office ever until this election cycle."
The incumbent, who was first assistant district attorney before succeeding David Capeless in March, waited until closing statements at end of the forum to defend his platform although he stressed during the questions the actions he's already taken in implementing bias training and other actions.
"I will not take advice and guidance from a candidate for this office who has not ever done this work," he stated. "That idea of doing cultural competency is my idea ... it was an idea that was actually fostered by the criminal justice reform bill, so I do take some offense, with all due respect to attorney Harrington, to suggest I took that idea from a debate is not the case."
Knight, however, says she's the true progressive candidate having run on the same platform back in 2006 against then incumbent Capeless. The rest of the state is just catching up with the recent criminal justice bill, she said.
"I am the progressive candidate who can get the job done," said Knight, who had worked as both a prosecutor and public defender before entering private practice.
The candidates largely agreed on the use of diversion programs as a way to keep small-time and young offenders out of the criminal justice system, with Caccaviello touting some of the current efforts being initiated through his office.
"I'm actually very much in favor of diversion programs," he said, "and I've already started the conversations."
Knight said she was disappointed that there has been no formal program implemented before now. Scientific research shows human brains aren't fully developed until age 25, meaning young people can make poor decisions that affect their entire lives.
"If there's a way in which we can divert and the person has a willingness to go through the pretrial probation diversion program ... they would come out at the other end with no criminal record whatsoever," she said. That is better for the community to have our young people back in, be able to go to college, able to get jobs without checking off some box."
Harrington said she would also implement a system to track bias within the district attorney's office related to prosecutorial decisions, bail and sentencing.
"Having people in the district attorney's office and people in law enforcement take a really close look at implicit bias in decision making is essential in building a system that's fair," she said.
Harrington and Knight said they would be more aggressive in dealing with forfeiture, or the taking of goods and property related to criminal activity.
Assets are seized prior to charges, said Harrington, vowing not to do so until there is a conviction and to be more cognizant of abuses in the system. Knight said she'd set up a transparent system showing how much and where any seized assets are coming from and how they are spent. Caccaviello said nothing is currently taken without a proper hearing.
The candidates, all Democrats, also spoke on modernizing the office through the use of technology, with Caccaviello saying he is implementing "reasonable transparency" by updating the website and starting a Facebook page.
When asked what significant difference the district attorney's office can make in the community, Caccaviello said it needed to be "victim oriented" in creating a safe community; Knight that it was all about transparency and trust; and Harrington that the goals have to change from the current focus on convictions and sentences to prevention.
The candidates will meet again on Wednesday night in Pittsfield for a forum conducted by the local chapter of the NAACP at 6 p.m. at Conte Community School.
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