Earlier this month, Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless gathered the local press to announce that he was retiring in two weeks time. He said he was leaving with his “head held high,” and he choked up, a bit, as he thanked his staff. But he also made an unsettling admission.
He was stepping down months before the end of his term for a nakedly political reason: he wanted his first assistant, Paul Caccaviello, to assume the job so he could run as an incumbent in the fall.
“I am taking this step now because I want Paul to be able to run as the district attorney,” Capeless said, going on to praise his anointed successor, seated just to his left, as “fully qualified, fully experienced” and sure to do a “terrific job.”
The statement was remarkable for its baldness. Capeless didn’t seem to realize, or to care, that he was short circuiting the democratic process — giving his hand-picked replacement a distinct advantage in the upcoming race, and possibly discouraging other candidates from running.
Governor Charlie Baker, who is responsible for filling district attorney vacancies, went along with the succession plan — though he did, at least, make a nod to the voters’ prerogative. His press secretary, in a lukewarm statement, called Caccaviello “well qualified” to serve “pending the results of the November election.”
If Capeless took a heedless approach to democracy, though, and the governor acceded, the voters of Berkshire County need not do the same. They should demand a contested election — and with it, a robust debate over the criminal justice reform proposals swirling around our national and local politics.
Indeed, voters in every part of the state should engage in often-overlooked district attorneys’ races. A group of intriguing candidates are vying for an open seat in Suffolk County. And progressive challengers are taking on incumbent district attorneys in Middlesex and Worcester.
Prosecutors are among the most powerful, and least scrutinized, figures in local government. Their daily decisions — to charge those accused of lesser crimes or divert them into probation or treatment, to fight (often unconscious) racial bias in the system or uphold the status quo — can alter the course of thousands of lives and dozens of communities.
And yet, there is a “lack of public debate and engagement around the role of district attorneys,” says Rahsaan Hall, who runs a public education campaign called “What A Difference a DA Makes” for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Capeless’s move to diminish the Berkshire County race, he says, “just doubles down” on the problem.
Ben Forman, research director at Boston-based think tank MassINC, adds that Capeless’ decision erodes the public trust by giving an insider a leg up on a powerful job. “It’s particularly important for the justice system to appear fair and impartial in a society that’s not always fair and impartial,” he says. “You’d think there would be an extra sensitivity to doing things the right way.” You’d think.
Caccaviello, Capeless’s long-time assistant, was sworn in as the new Berkshire County district attorney on Thursday.