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Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington speaks out on criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization

"As a parent, and someone who’s worked with young people who are at risk, I’m very concerned with how we protect young people from marijuana. We know that marijuana is devastating for developing brains. If your kids get drunk before school, you’re going to notice. But if they’re smoking marijuana, it’s a lot harder to tell." --Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington

In anticipation of the Wednesday, March 13, “Weed is Here, Now What?” forum on recreational marijuana at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, which is free and co-sponsored by the Railroad Street Youth Project and The Berkshire Edge, we are running two interviews with panel members who will be answering questions from the audience. 

The full panel for the event will be members of both the Great Barrington and Sheffield police departments; Ed Abrahams, Great Barrington selectman; Chris Tucci, deputy director of Railroad Street Youth Project; Dr. David Lane, clinical director at the Center for Motivation and Change; and Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney. 

Below is an edited transcript of a recent interview with Andrea Harrington, to be followed in a few days by a profile of Railroad Street Youth Project’s deputy director Chris Tucci. Harrington was sworn in January 2, 2019, and has been working to implement the reform policies she campaigned on.

Sheela Clary: Where do you come at the marijuana legalization issue personally?
Andrea Harrington: I have been concerned about very high rates of incarceration. We have higher rates than Iran! People say, well, Massachusetts doesn’t have such high rates. But being the best of the worst is not good enough. A lot of people have served a lot of time for marijuana-related charges. I am fully on board with decriminalizing marijuana and getting people out of jail for those kinds of offenses.

As a parent, and someone who’s worked with young people who are at risk, I’m very concerned with how we protect young people from marijuana. We know that marijuana is devastating for developing brains. If your kids get drunk before school, you’re going to notice. But if they’re smoking marijuana, it’s a lot harder to tell. Also, we are seeing really terrible violence come about that started as marijuana deals.

Andrea Harrington explaining her views on criminal justice reform at No Six Depot in West Stockbridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

SC: These have come across your desk since you’ve been in office?
AH: Yes. The police are seeing violence coming out of black-market deals. My sense is that it’s a development. It used to be hippie guys selling out of their basements; now, it seems to be a scarier element. We’re also seeing a lot of marijuana laced with fentanyl. There’s been a lot of discussion about how we want to approach specific marijuana cases. My position so far has been, if there are firearms involved, we’re throwing the book at them. But with young people, at the retail level, we don’t want them to have a record following them around for the rest of their lives. We want to see people be able to get out from under that. If we find fentanyl in it, that’s a whole different story.

SC: A big question is what’s going to happen to the black market now. A recent story in MassLive interviewed people at a cannabis conference in Boston about this and the insiders said: “The black market’s not going anywhere. The legal stuff is twice as expensive.”
AH: Right. There’s still a lot of money to be made, maybe more money to be made, since it’s acceptable now. We are developing a policy [on handling marijuana issues broadly], and it’s going to be based on input from prevention and recovery experts, law enforcement. I’m not coming at this like I know exactly what to do, but it will be driven by data and evidence and experts.

SC: What about the idea of expunging records for past marijuana charges?
AH: Yes, I want to push that forward. There was a piece of legislation that was passed in the Massachusetts House that didn’t go anywhere last session. I asked about it in regard to the criminal justice reform bill that passed, and someone told me that Sen. Brownsberger, the architect of that act, is against expungement.

My office is pro-expungement in general. I’m part of an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution, and they support progressive district attorneys across the country. Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney in Maryland, just announced a big initiative to expunge marijuana records, and marijuana is still illegal there. I’ve reached out to the DA from Boulder, Colorado. I want to know what kind of policies they’ve developed, what they are seeing with the black market and how they prosecute those.

You’ve really educated me about kids that are part of marginalized groups that are engaging in behaviors that are legal for rich people but not for poor people. There’s that piece, and then, if you’re seeing homicides coming out of marijuana deals, if you’re seeing fentanyl, what’s the best way to protect the public?

SC: I’m curious about your new cash bail policy. How did you come to see that as a priority so early?
AH: We have a wealth-based criminal justice system. A lot of people who are incarcerated are being held pretrial on cash bail. It’s something that Larry Krasner from Philadelphia campaigned on, and other progressive DAs. There’s a package of progressive policies aimed at bringing down incarceration rates, and looking at how people of different races and ethnicities are treated differently in the system.

When I was preparing for my first debate in the campaign, I saw some data for Berkshire County, that African-Americans pay $5,000 for bail while whites pay $1,000. No one here knew that because it’s buried in this report from Mass Inc. from 2015. The purpose of bail is supposed to be to ensure that people come to court. They don’t not come to court because they’re fleeing to another country. They don’t come to court because they don’t have a phone, or they didn’t write it down, or they’re having a mental break.

If you hold them in the House of Correction, they’re going to come back because you’re going to bring them back, but there are other states that have found better ways. There are text-messaging services that work really well, like the ones for dentist and doctor appointments. Our policies have really been fear-driven, and I get it: What if I don’t ask for these people to be held and they’re out on the street and do something terrible? But we need to make policy on data, evidence, fairness and hope for the future, and not based on fear. You can put everybody in jail and no one will be able to commit crimes. But then everybody’s in jail.

There’s better ways to get them to court besides money, like a GPS monitor. If people are dangerous, then there’s a statute that allows them to be held pretrial. The DA decides what to ask for in terms of bail, we make our pitch and the judge makes the final decision. Same with dangerousness—we’ll ask people to be held as dangerous.

In Superior Count, even in cases where we’re not necessarily seeking to have people held as dangerous, we’re still asking for high bail amounts because our feeling is when you’re facing state prison time, there’s more impetus to take off and not deal with your case.

Railroad Street Youth Project executive director Ananda Timpane

SC: What are your other early initiatives?
AH: Domestic violence is a big problem here. We’ve had six Berkshire County women murdered in the past four years, a staggering number here. We’ve begun a Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force. Helen [Moon, the DA’s director of new initiatives] is in touch with Ananda [Timpane, RSYP’s executive director] about that. The sexual assault rates in Berkshire County are also really disturbing. We want to have a community-wide response to prevention in those cases.

Human trafficking is happening here. There used to be women in the community who law enforcement knew were the prostitutes. Now they’re seeing younger girls who are not from here. Something we’re working on is getting funding for trainings, for law enforcement and medical personnel. A lot of the trafficked women will come into contact with medical personnel in the emergency room. Those crimes are prosecuted at the federal level, so I want to create relationships with the U.S. attorney’s office so we’re doing investigations together. They’re based in Boston with an office in Springfield. We’re working on making those connections.

SC: Are there new systems you’re putting in place to gather data?
AH: Yes. I am going to be working with this organization called the Center for Court Innovation on that piece.

SC: And that will serve to track, for instance, how many African Americans were arrested in a year versus Caucasians, etc.?
AH: Exactly. It hasn’t been available. We have a case management system that’s over 25 years old. I want to measure the success of our office not based on how many convictions we get, but on how many people come into the system that are diverted, and don’t come back, and if people are treated fairly. In order to do that, we need more data and new systems.

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington and Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in 2018 when Harrington was a candidate for the office she now holds.

SC: Are you trying to raise new funds for the DA’s office?
AH: Yes. We’re trying to bring in grants, federal funding. On the law enforcement side, we’re trying to bring in new people for the task force, trying to get new surveillance equipment, be part of a federal partnership so we work to get rid of larger networks of drug dealers. When I met with Congressman Richie Neal in D.C., I talked to him about getting federal grant funding, Violence Against Women Act funding, and other sources.

SC: Where are you so far with diversion programs?
AH: The criminal justice reform act requires juvenile diversion. We’re the only county in the state that didn’t have a juvenile diversion program, though they did start one after the statute went into effect. Helen has been looking at the latest research and models.

She’s also been talking to community partners, like Railroad Street Youth Project, about providing services. We want something robust that will help organize resources and programs for young people across the community.

I’m going to start looking at our adult diversion program, which is incredibly important. There’s a statewide commission on what they call “emerging adults.” I’m reading this book now called “Clean.” [Recent book about drug addiction.]

It’s so clear; you have to intervene early. That’s what we have to do when young people have their first brush with the law. We know up until age 25 that brains are still developing and a lot of the people involved in the criminal justice system are in that age range.

I think every parent and student in Berkshire County should see the lecture Dr. Michaels [Jennifer Michaels of the Brien Center] gives. A big piece of it is marijuana, but she talks about using your phone and how things affect developing brains. It’s scientific,; she has slides and graphs and data, and it’s not lecturing: “This is what your brain looks like under the influence.” To me, that’s what’s the most persuasive thing in talking to kids about drug use, not these “Shame on you” kinds of things.

We prevent kids from using by giving them good things, relationships and activities—that 3 to 6 p.m. time period, keeping them busy and active. That, to me, is how we do drug use prevention.

SC: How would your office interact with that?
AH: There’s a juvenile task force in place now which is very law enforcement-based. We’d like more partners coming to the table, identifying the kids who need support, and getting them involved in programs pre-arrest. I want to see structural change where we move resources out of incarceration and into more preventive programs, dealing with kids’ mental health challenges. We need to provide treatment for the underlying issues.

There’s starting to be recognition of what trauma does to people. I saw a grant application, which had passed its deadline, to train early-childhood people to recognize trauma and work with family systems. I plan to raise it at the next BOAPC [Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative convened by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission] meeting to see, the next time this grant rolls around again, who could apply for it.

SC: I don’t know how you’re doing all this!
AH: I just asked Sue [longtime secretary to the district attorney] to get me a big whiteboard so I can draw out my strategic plan for my next four years in office.

To hear more from the district attorney about her priorities and thoughts about the new recreational marijuana industry in Berkshire County, join us at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center Wednesday, March 13, at 7 p.m. for our free forum.


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