Berkshire DA Petitions SJC To Uphold Protections For Victims
District Attorney Andrea Harrington will argue an appeal in the Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday, which will establish pretrial detention guidelines in light of the Trial Court’s suspension of jury trials.
As noted in a press release that was sent to WSBS from the District Attorney's Office in taking up the matter of Commonwealth v. Scott Smith and consolidating it with other appeals from across the Commonwealth, the Supreme Judicial Court will determine whether the suspension of jury trials extends the length of time that trial judges may order defendants held pretrial. The SJC issued an order last week suspending jury trials until September 8th at the earliest.
The Court system is challenged in striking the appropriate balance between a defendant’s due process rights and protecting victim and public safety. In her brief filed last Friday, the Berkshire District Attorney urged the Court to create a balancing test that emphasizes case-specific circumstances, local conditions, and progression towards resuming jury trials.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office recognizes that there must be limits to pretrial detention, implemented policies to limit the number of individuals held on low-level charges, and is now working with the Court to safely resume jury trials to bring defendants to justice as soon as possible.
“We are selective in who we ask to be held pre-trial. When we ask the courts to hold a defendant pretrial, we have strong reasons to believe that the individual poses a direct threat to victims and the community. All defendants currently detained at the Berkshire County House of Correction will be held accountable for their actions through the jury trial process and my office will do everything within our power to ensure public safety until the courts can safely reconvene juries,” District Attorney Andrea Harrington said.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office’s bail policy reserves pretrial incarceration for those who pose a danger to the community or individuals and the office seeks reasonable conditions of release for the majority of defendants arraigned.
District Attorney Harrington previously negotiated with a Special Master appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court and criminal justice agencies across that state to secure protections for victims and the community, specifically regarding domestic violence and child abuse, by excluding those defendants from a presumption of release.
Berkshire County has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the state. The rate of restraining orders requested and received is 33 percent more than any other county and four Berkshire towns ranked in the top 10 for the rate of reported rapes.
There are indicators that domestic violence has increased during the pandemic. The rates of domestic assault in Pittsfield quadrupled compared to this time last year and the rate of threats is nearly 10 times greater.
Mandated reporters are seeing fewer children, putting children at a heightened risk of abuse. The Department of Children and Families received 51 percent fewer reports than before the shuttering of schools. The Supreme Judicial Court adopted those recommendations when it issued statewide guidance on the release of certain individuals held pre-trial and facing non-violent charges.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office proactively encouraged attorneys for defendants held pre-trial on bail set by a clerk magistrate and facing non-violence charges to file motions for release during the pandemic. The office assented to 24 defense counsel motions for release and sought to continued detention for 29 others who present a danger to the community.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office prioritizes holding perpetrators of crime accountable promptly. Before the pandemic, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office significantly reduced the backlog of pending cases to reduce delays.
The court should consider all factors when determining pretrial incarceration so that victims, responding police officers, and the community are protected and individuals are not needlessly incarcerated pretrial.
The district attorney is appealing the Central Berkshire District Court’s release of a defendant from pretrial detention. The Court ordered the defendant in the matter of Commonwealth v. Scott Smith to be held pretrial after being found dangerous on domestic violence charges and subsequently violating the conditions of his pretrial release when he was charged with possession with intent to distribute a class B substance.
On May 11, a justice of the District Court released the defendant over the District Attorney’s objection, finding that the suspension of jury trials due to COVID-19 did not alter the time under which the defendant could be held pretrial.
The court previously scheduled the trial for April but the Trial Court delayed all jury trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which is leading to extended pre-trial detention. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office is appealing that finding and stresses the urgency of holding defendants accountable through jury trials as soon as possible.
The pretrial defendants at issue are all detained by trial courts upon either being adjudicated a danger to the community or the court found that the defendant re offended while on pretrial release and no conditions of release ensured public safety.
The Berkshire District Attorney's Office anticipates that the ruling will primarily impact district court cases, which carry a maximum of a two and a half year sentence, as opposed to individuals indicted or pending indictment in Superior Court.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington’s office serves all 32 cities and towns in Berkshire County. The office represents the Commonwealth in more than 7,500 criminal cases per year in Berkshire Superior Court, three district courts, three juvenile courts, Massachusetts Appeals Court, and Supreme Judicial Court. The office works closely with the State Police Detective Unit assigned to the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, the Berkshire Law Enforcement Task Force, and collaborates with local police departments across the county. A dedicated staff of more than 50 prioritizes public safety, empowering victims and witnesses through services and support, and building a safe community for everyone and especially the most vulnerable.