Rachael Rollins: Don’t Ignore the Need for Progressive District Attorneys

Unlike members of state legislatures or the U.S. Congress, district attorneys are in a unique position to address persistent inequality in the system immediately.

[Photo: A gavel.]
Tackling systemic race and wealth-based disparities requires a district attorney that prioritizes community partnerships and restorative justice over punishment for punishment’s sake, education over incarceration, and treatment over jail sentences. Shutterstock

A new wave of district attorneys could close the front door on mass incarceration.

For years, district attorneys’ offices across the country have been the front door of mass incarceration. In Boston, it is well known that persistent, documented racial disparities often go unchecked. While Massachusetts is a “blue state,” it seems Black and Brown perspectives, opinions, and lives don’t always matter. Although the city has made progress, including six of our 13 city council members being women of color and a newly appointed Black police commissioner, our neighborhoods, schools, and criminal justice system mirror the segregation for which we were called out nationally during the days of court-ordered busing.

Massachusetts incarcerates people at higher rates “than nearly every other country on earth,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Despite the fact that Massachusetts spends tens of thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate a single individual, many in prison do not have access to such fundamental needs as clean drinking water.

Too often, issues affecting Black and Brown people are brushed under the rug, left for brave journalists to reveal in exposé articles. A short conversation follows and cities may even host dialogues on race, but action isn’t taken and little or nothing changes. In fact, at this moment there is a massive backlog of unsolved homicides of mostly Black and Brown people in Boston. The same system that has ignored these unsolved homicides is also responsible for the over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-sentencing of people of color. Black and Latinx people are incarcerated at 7.4 and 4.3 times the rate of white people in the Commonwealth. According to the Boston Globe, “This means that the rate of disparity for [Black people] in Massachusetts is 45 percent higher than the national average, while for Latinos, it is more than three times the national average.”

Unlike members of state legislatures or the U.S. Congress, district attorneys are in a unique position to address persistent inequality in the system immediately. District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago’s Cook County both did so. Tackling systemic race and wealth-based disparities requires a district attorney that prioritizes community partnerships and restorative justice over punishment for punishment’s sake, education over incarceration, and treatment over jail sentences.

District attorneys must see the connections between a broad variety of issues including housing, health care (including mental health care), education, and workforce development through a lens of racial, gender, economic, and other forms of justice to inform institutional change and the urgent implementation of fair policies. While our district attorney race is crucial for Suffolk County Massachusetts, it is equally important for the nation.

More progressive candidates are running for district attorney across the country, in places like King County (Seattle, Washington), Bexar County (San Antonio, Texas), and Tarrant County (Fort Worth, Texas). As more begin to win elections, the nation will have a template for how we can change the landscape and face of prosecutorial power. DAs need to be seasoned managers and bold leaders who can do the hard work necessary to change the entrenched law-and-order cultures of DA’s offices to cultures of equity, fairness, and restorative justice. However, this new wave cannot be effective managers only on paper—they must be both real and extraordinary public servants, doing this work from a place of having been-in and-through the places of injustice. Many who belong to this new wave, like me, have experienced these status-quo systems of injustice from every angle. I’ve seen it all—as a prosecutor, defense attorney, advocate, family member, and as a foster mom to my two nieces. We have grave challenges facing our local communities right now. District attorneys must guarantee that reforms will be implemented with a progressive, bold, innovative change that meets the challenges of the times—with attention, urgency, passion, and research-proven interventions used in most developed nations but largely ignored by the United States.

This new wave of DAs can and should stand up to the Trump administration’s overreach of power. We can decriminalize that which never should never have been criminalized; hold police accountable in ways that make our communities safer; and amplify the voices of all of the victims of the status-quo system of ‘justice’ including those who have suffered from a racist caste system of mass incarceration.

Leadership means standing up and showing up in a climate of fear and hatred. It means having a district attorney that will take strategic, social-justice minded action while working hand-in-hand with the community. As a DA, part of showing up must involve standing up to the U.S. attorneys—in our case, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. It means instituting a first-of-its-kind door-to-door escort system for undocumented victims, witnesses, and defendants. It means personally showing up if ICE is arresting people in or near any of our courthouses and demanding our undocumented residents be returned to Suffolk County—and if they aren’t, filing an injunction. It also means standing up to U.S. attorneys who put politics before health care, basic human rights, and lives. It means challenging out loud U.S. attorneys who oppose science-based harm-reduction modalities such as supervised injection facilities (SIFs). In Massachusetts, a raging opioid epidemic takes the lives of six to eight people daily, and SIFs can save lives while opening the door to treatment. It means, if it comes to it, not prosecuting doctors and other medical providers if Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion criminalized.

It is clear that racial disparities in the criminal justice system have been left over from a long and costly “War on Drugs.” With a renewed focus on the opioid epidemic, district attorneys can build a movement to change not only how addiction and drugs are treated under the law but also address the race- and wealth-based disparities of who receives treatment and who doesn’t.

Building on the strong, research-informed, grassroots activism to end cash bail, progressive DAs should go even farther and push for upstream prevention. In the context of our cell-phone society where 9-1-1 is seen as the quickest way to “take care” of problems (which actually aren’t problems), this new wave of DAs should default to not prosecuting crimes such as trespassing, disturbing the peace, possession of alcohol, and many others. These crimes are often mistakes that some individuals can make and others, because of their skin color, simply can’t without disproportionate consequences regarding their future education, career, and community engagement.

As of today, 679 people have been shot and killed by the police in 2018. DAs, in order to work with both the police and the community, should appoint special prosecutors outside of the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, excessive force allegations and shootings, including homicides. In my administration, these special prosecutors would include former prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, retired judges and members of law enforcement, and civil rights lawyers who would adequately reflect the racial diversity of our communities. This is common-sense policy that is about fairness, transparency, and reducing racial disparities. Our communities (including our police officers) are safer when our communities trust and believe in the criminal justice system.

And although DAs only report to the voters, they should also hear, listen to, and amplify those behind the wall and without a vote. DAs and the assistant district attorneys they supervise should know and understand what it feels like to be locked in a cell. People are surprised that I have endorsements from five groups of prisoners, and that I spent hours visiting with the African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk 12 days before the election. But these experiences change you as a person and make you understand how the decisions made by prosecutors have direct, significant, and life-changing consequences.  If you are going to lead a team of prosecutors, you must fully understand the material consequences of convicting and sentencing someone.

These DA races are no longer down-ballot decisions to be ignored. They should be front-page news. Campaigns supported by activists such as Shaun King and prosecutorial reformers such as Adam Foss are gaining attention. In Massachusetts, the ACLU has launched a campaign called What a Difference a DA Makes. People are hashtagging #DADifference on social media. But what the wave really needs is votes. Our democracy depends upon it.