Criminal justice reform, accountability dominate Berkshire DA primary
In next week’s Democratic Primary for Berkshire district attorney, incumbent Andrea Harrington is running on her record of reform. Challenger Timothy Shugrue said he backs both criminal justice reform and tough prosecution.
Shugrue runs a criminal defense and family law practice in Pittsfield. At a debate hosted by iBerkshires and Pittsfield Community Television in August, he said the courtroom is like his home.
"I have been a lawyer and a courtroom litigator for 36 years. That is where I live," Shugrue said.
He first honed his legal skills in 1986, fresh out of law school, prosecuting child abuse and sexual assault as an assistant DA in Hampden County — and then in the Berkshire DA’s office.
"I have prosecuted literally hundreds of cases in the Superior Court," he said. "Including child abuse, sexual assault, drug trafficking, gun violence, domestic violence, fraud and murder."
Harrington said that having legal experience doesn’t guarantee someone will make good decisions for the community.
"Listen, Attorney Shugrue, everybody knows that you have 36 years of experience. Everybody knows that you have more experience in the courtroom than I do," Harrington said at the mid-August debate. "What I am is, I'm a leader in the office."
Harrington's campaign did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Prior to taking office, Harrington practiced law for 15 years, representing plaintiffs in employment litigation. She did some criminal defense and family law.
Since becoming DA, she said she has developed a high-risk domestic violence team, expanded the child abuse unit and brought on 39 new employees.
"Our staff is incredibly diverse. We have built trust with communities who are distrustful of law enforcement," Harrington said. "Being a leader in the office doesn’t mean you spend all your time doing trials."
In early August, Harrington released a months-long investigation into the police shooting of a 22-year-old Pittsfield man, Miguel Estrella, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis. At a press conference, Harrington said the officer acted in self-defense and won’t face criminal charges.
“These are sad and tragic circumstances, but they are not criminal in nature,” she said.
Estrella’s mother, Marisol Estrella, told The Berkshire Eagle she was surprised by the DA's investigation, because she thought justice would be done.
At the mid-August debate Shugrue didn’t comment on the DA’s role in the investigation of the police shooting. He commended the state troopers who took part in it.
Both Shugrue and Harrington support starting a separate mental health court in Berkshire County. The court would hear cases that involve people with mental health issues.
'Builds trust in the community'
As part of her criminal justice reform initiatives, Harrington launched a new policy to reduce the prosecution of some drug-related crimes and what she calls “low-level” offenses.
“There is a certain category of cases that really does more harm than good for us to be prosecuting them in the courts," she said.
They include possessing drugs for personal use, prostitution, shoplifting, driving with a suspended license, loitering and trespassing. Those are charges, she said, that are driven by poverty, mental health and substance use. The DA said by not arresting people for those crimes, there’s less of a chance they’ll end up in court again.
"It also builds trust in the community, so that when we're investigating serious violent crime, we have more trust, and we can get people to cooperate," she said.
Shugrue disagrees with this approach. He said dismissing a case outright can leave an addict without help. He wants to hold offenders of these types of crimes accountable by bringing them into court.
"We prosecute it, but we divert it. It's called 'pretrial diversion.' So you don't end up with a conviction if you do X, Y and Z. So there's accountability." Shugrue said. "If you got a substance abuse disorder, you must get into drug treatment or alcohol treatment. If you don't do it, then we'll prosecute you for the crime."
Shugrue said if the DA doesn’t hold a person accountable, it’s a disservice to them and, in some cases, victims. After speaking with local merchants, he said one of the crimes not being prosecuted — shoplifting — is costing local stores a lot of money.
'Misuse of the dangerousness statute'
Another new policy Harrington spearheaded is reducing the use of cash bail. She said it’s unfair to people who are impoverished. But under her watch the number of dangerousness hearings have increased — another way to hold people before trial.
According to the Massachusetts Trial Court, in the last fiscal year there were about three times as many dangerousness hearings in Berkshire County District Courts as there were before Harrington took office — and more than four times as many in Superior Court.
At a virtual forum held this month by the NAACP, Harrington said holding people as dangerous is an important tool for public safety.
"Most of the cases we use it in are domestic violence cases. I do recognize that there needs to be a lot of scrutiny around the use of dangerousness hearings, but people are provided due process," she said.
Shugrue pointed out that, by law someone can be held as dangerous without the right to bail for four months in District Court and six months in Superior Court. He said people are being punished now for crimes they haven’t been convicted of.
"I will use a dangerousness when it's appropriate," Shugrue said. "But what I'm saying is, the dangerousness statute is being used in lieu of bail. And that's a misuse of the dangerousness statute."
Harrington said her office has never made an unfair request for a dangerousness hearing.
In an unusual use of state funds by a district attorney, Harrington's office spent $15,000 to hire a Chicago-based media relations firm her first year in office — a small part of the office's $5 million budget. Under her watch, the office also had contracts with organizational management firms.
Last year, Harrington made another controversial move, asking the chief justice of the Massachusetts District Court and two other judges to prevent Berkshire County District Court Judge Jennifer Tyne from presiding over criminal cases.
Harrington wrote the judges that Tyne was hostile to victims, citing specific cases. After reviewing the complaint, Paul Dawley, who at the time served as chief justice, wrote in a statement to The Berkshire Eagle, "Based on the information provided to me, there is no factual basis for me to confirm the District Attorney’s serious allegations."
The Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly published an editorial on June 17, 2021, saying Harrington could have pursued legal appeals or written a complaint to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Calling Harrington's letter to Trial Court leadership an "end run," the editorial said, "This approach seems primarily designed to score points with voters, since Harrington is a first-term district attorney up for re-election next year."
No Republican candidates
Despite these questions about her record, Harrington has been endorsed by people she calls progressive champions.
“Like Attorney General Maura Healey, our [U.S.] Senator, Elizabeth Warren," Harrington said. "Because they recognize here in Massachusetts that the way that we're going to gain a competitive advantage is by addressing racial inequities, gender-based violence."
Shugrue has been endorsed by the State Police Association of Massachusetts and police locals in Dalton, North Adams and Pittsfield. He is also endorsed by The Berkshire Eagle.
Shugrue said at the mid-August debate he’s not a politician.
"Some people say I talk too fast and I mumble little bit. That's just who I am. I'm a trial lawyer with experience within the system," he said.
There is no Republican running for DA this election, so whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to be the district attorney. Although last time around, after winning the primary, Harrington faced a write-in challenger.