Friday, March 31, 2006

Barrios: Address Root Causes

State Senator Jarrett Barrios was in Watertown last night talking to our Democratic Town Committee about his candidacy for Middlesex County District Attorney. Also present was Teddy from Sports, Politics and Revenge, who posted his thoughts there.

Barrios' message was that Middlesex County needs a DA who is not only tough on crime, but also tough on its root causes. The theme of the evening was that "justice in the future means less crime" -- and that the job of the DA is not only to put criminals behind bars, but also to create and manage public safety programs aimed at reducing recidivism. Barrios reminded us that 99.8% of those incarcerated will be back on the street eventually and it's important to make sure that they are not just going to wind up in front of a judge again.

Throughout the meeting he touted the Anti-Gang law he sponsored in the Senate and the anti-Identity Theft initiative that is currently pending.

Barrios downplayed the importance of courtroom experience for a district attorney. The DA never appears in court, he said, and leaves that to his assistants. He noted that he has as much courtroom experience -- including criminal defense work -- as Scott Harshbarger did in 1982, and more than now Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-Quincy) had when he was appointed Norfolk County DA in 1975. Some of the most creative ideas, Barrios claimed, often come from those who have never been prosecutors since they are coming from outside the system and can offer a different perspective.

When asked about the biggest problem facing Middlesex county, Barrios pointed to drug addition and substance abuse. He noted that in these cases we need to deal with the underlying problem of addiction, otherwise the offenders are almost certain to repeat. He pointed to the drug court in Framingham and other localities as examples of a way to combine treatment and punishment for these types of offenses.

Barrios wants to frame this as a choice between a single-minded one-dimensional prosecutor and someone with a broader experience in public safety. He bolsters this argument by pointing to all the work he has done in the Senate during his tenure as Chair of the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee, particularly in working and talking with other groups to try to address the causes of crime. The implication (I thought) was that his opponent, former Assistant US Attorney Gerry Leone, is not interested in such collaboration. Frankly, I don't think that this is quite fair to Leone, and ignores his own history of bringing groups together to stop crime, particularly his work in the Community Based Justice program at the DA's office. This, I think, underscores the difference between the two candidates. Barrios is already fairly well known for a state Senator, and as such, he's free to talk about what he'd do as DA. Leone is still introducing himself to the voters, and he has focused more on his resume than what his plans are, leaving his opponent to fill in the blanks. Now, Leone's resume may be enough to win him the election by itself, but my feeling is that if he is not able to get his message out, Barrios will gladly do it for him.

As an aside, I've spent a lot of time recently looking over 1998 election returns and in that year Martha Coakley, who had previously lost a state rep bid but had no other experience in electoral politics, won every town in Middlesex County and lost only in Lowell (by a handful of votes) and Cambridge. She was running at the time against two well-connected Democrats in the primary, then and current Cambridge city councilor Michael A. Sullivan, former mayor and candidate for Middlesex County Clerk of Courts, and Timothy Flaherty, son of former Speaker of the House Charlie Flaherty. I was not in Massachusetts at that time, so I can't speak as to how that campaign unfolded, but it seems to me that those results show that it takes, or at least took, more than political connections to win Middlesex County DA.