Knight Campaign Kick-off Speech
June 21, 2006
I want to thank you all for being here today. This is very exciting and an honor for me to be standing in front of this diverse and interesting group of people. We now have an opportunity to change the way we address crime and communities at risk that is more thoughtful and more effective in the long term. I have served in every area of the criminal justice system: prosecutor, public defender and in private practice. I have worked in the criminal courts in Denver, Cambridge, Lowell, and Boston - and for the last eight years, back to my roots in Berkshire County. Berkshire County is my first love. I have always felt this place is a very special place in the world and I care deeply about the quality life we have here.
I have learned through my conversations with people throughout the county - from Williamstown to Ashley Falls. There is a growing frustration that justice is not being accomplished in our courts and that there has to be a better way. I agree - there is a better way. I do not subscribe to the lock 'em up and throw away the key response to crime, or the policy of treating all criminal offenders the same. That is the easy way out of a much more complex problem. The one-size-fits-all response to crime is wrong. Applying it does not make for a tough stance; it makes for an intractable stance. It is the District Attorney's job to evaluate every case on its own merit. This means looking at the severity of the crime, whether there are victims involved, and the history of the offender. And then deciding whether he/she is a danger to society or themselves. From this viewpoint, a District Attorney can find the best way to accomplish justice in each case. This takes time and wisdom. This approach is called being smart on crime and it's much tougher than just throwing the book at every offender.
It is absolutely part of the District Attorney's job to actively participate in reducing crime, to bring the numbers down. We can always prosecute more and more people. That's not the whole answer. That approach is reactive, responding
to crime after it happens. As District Attorney, I will be pro-active. I will engage in preventative measures to stop crime before it occurs. Reducing crime - isn't that what we all want?
It is imperative that the District Attorney keep an eye on the big picture and stay informed. As your District Attorney, I want to hear, without filter, from every citizen, young and old, regardless of race or economic status, your concerns and the reality of your lives as it is impacted by the criminal justice system. I want to hear, without filter, from every police officer in this County, their concerns, needs and challenges in doing their job each day. From these groups, I plan to create community liaisons that can freely communicate with the District Attorney's office and each other. Polarizing the community at large or shutting out dissenting voices is wrong and stunts the growth of the community. Everybody loses. As a community leader, the District Attorney has a duty to stay on the front lines and learn what is actually happening from individuals who offer different perspectives.
In the last few years, it seems crime has increased in Berkshire County. Drive-by shootings, home invasions were unheard of five years ago. We have two unsolved murders. The communities involved don't know the status of those investigations. While some secrecy is necessary to preserve the integrity of the investigations, there should be some ongoing dialogue with the community about how they could best help. The best way to fight crime and to solve crime is to engage the community. Community members usually know things that could be helpful to law enforcement but don't know a way to share it. Most police officers I know want to do their best to serve their community and make it safe. They would welcome the help. So why aren't we all talking? Creating a space for an ongoing dialogue can only move us forward.
I will also prosecute the worst cases first. I view violent offenders differently than non-violent offenders. People who hurt people must be brought to justice and that justice most definitely includes jail time. First and foremost the community must be kept safe. The offender must be punished. And as District Attorney I will always keep an eye towards healing the community where the crime occurred. The District Attorney decides the order of the list in felony court. Each month when criminal cases are tried, the order of the list dictates who will get tried that month. As District Attorney, I will put the violent crimes involving rape, domestic violence, home invasions and child abuse up at the top of list. Getting those cases tried and a conviction of the offender as well as relief and protection for the victim has to be the first priority.
I do not believe that jail is appropriate for first time non-violent offenders or drug users. The system has many more resources than jail; let's use them. Fashioning an alternate sentence to teach a person a lesson, and giving them a chance to redeem themselves is much harder work for the D.A., the judge and the individual. But in the long run, it is much more effective and less costly. Studies show that the cost of treatment is about 25% of what it costs to jail the same person - and much more effective in keeping offenders from becoming repeat criminals. As District Attorney, I will empower my staff to look deeper into each case and fashion a sentence that addresses the offender's problem and provides the right punishment. Treatment, community service, keeping a job, and staying in school are all ways to improve a person and redeem themselves to society. It is a win-win approach for the offender and the community and it's a much tougher sentence than sitting in jail for a year.
In my experience, most of us want to prosper and be respected in our community. There are usually only a few bad seeds that bring into the community the temptation of drugs or joining a gang. An empowered community, an informed community, can fight against those cancers from moving in. A disenfranchised community cannot. With the regular dialogue which includes input from the local police, community members, education and mental health professionals, each community stands a better chance of staying united. It is, I fear, the younger members of our communities that are heard the least and are the most vulnerable. They must once again believe that law enforcement is there to protect them, not hassle them, to be respected, not feared. I want the younger members of the community, all citizens, to know that if they are afraid, that if they know a gang member or drug dealer has come into their neighborhood and is putting pressure on them, that they have a direct line to law enforcement and the District Attorney's office to help them stop crime before it starts and that they won't ever feel that they have to take matters into their own hands.
I applaud the Chief of Police in Lenox for creating a diversion program where the police identify teens at risk and bring them into the court for guidance, not punishment. In that program the teens, the police, the parents and the community leaders all work together to create a solution. The teens are steered on the right path and their official criminal records sheets (CORI) are kept clean. Yes, it takes time and commitment from everyone involved but I am certain it is saving a world of heartache.
In that same vein, when I was a year out of law school, I was assigned to defend a man in his mid-thirties who had a string of arrests around drug and alcohol abuse and by the time his most recent case came to me, everyone had given up on him. His family wanted nothing to do with him, the judge saw no answer but jail and the man had given up on himself. He told me that he wanted to die so it really didn't matter to him what his punishment was. So he got jail time: 18 months. He had in his possession photographs of a life he once had, which looked like happy times with caring people. The contrast - his obvious decline - shook me. I kept in contact with him and visited him in jail. I was able to reestablish contact between him and his family. I then went back into court and asked the judge to allow him out on a furlough for a day to attend a wedding. Under strict rules, the judge said yes. Then I made another request which allowed for every other Sunday, brief visits off jail grounds, again under strict rules. The judge reluctantly allowed it. This man rose to each opportunity. Six months or more passed and this man had served his time and found me in the courthouse where I was still working. I didn't recognize him. He was clean, sober and happy. He had come to thank me and the judge for not giving up on him even when he had given up on himself. The judge said to me: never forget this - because if you never do another thing, you have to remember your part in saving that man. None of that was easy for any of us involved - but believe me it was worth it.
The reason I share this story with you is because as your District Attorney, I will use the same in-depth dogged approach in solving crime and working toward a better community in the long run - even if it means reaching one person at a time.
I am not going to give you the tired old line that I am going to be "tough on crime." I am going to be smart on crime and that's much harder; and it will make Berkshire County a safer place to live.