PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR SERIES: Boston Progressive DA Faces Pushback in Policies by Opponents

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Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins speaking in San Francisco in February

By Linhchi Nguyen and Carlin Ross

BOSTON – Even after two years on the job, Suffolk County District Attorney Raechel Rollins continues to battle against pushback by her opponents as she attempts to dismiss low-level misdemeanor charges and to pass her other progressive policies.

One of Rollins’ first and most impactful initiatives upon taking office in January 2019 was a policy, known as the list of “Charges to Be Declined,” of presumptively dismissing and diverting certain low-level misdemeanor charges.

In response, opponents such as Massachusetts’ Gov. Charlie Baker, public secretary Thomas Turco, and several judges spoke out against her efforts, claiming that her policies restrict the state’s ability to protect victims of serious crimes.

Under Rollins’ list of 15 “Charges to Be Declined,” she includes charges such as trespassing, shoplifting, disturbing the peace, drug possession, and more. According to Rollins, these offenses are often symptomatic, not of criminal intent, but of mental illness, substance use disorder, and poverty.

Instead of using limited resources to prosecute and incarcerate these offenders, Rollins seeks to hold them accountable while providing access to services and treatment that address the underlying causes of these acts.

However, a team of court watchers in Massachusetts, CourtWatch MA, reported that during the first 100 days of her term, not much has changed. Atara Rich-Shea, spokeswoman for CourtWatch MA, stated:

“Every week, we see the same racial disparities, the same number of prosecutions for charges on [Rollins’] ‘do-not-prosecute list,’ the same kinds of asking for bail in situations where our understanding [is] that bail would no longer be asked for.”

Rollins noted that the reasoning could be due to some pushback by opponents. A week after its release, Rollins’ reform agenda came under fire from the Baker administration.

Baker directed said, in a message to Rollins, “You send a really bad message not just to people who might potentially do those sorts of things, but you send a really bad message to the people who would be on the receiving end of that type of behavior.”

His public secretary, Thomas Turco, shared his concerns in a public letter, saying that Rollins’ policies would prevent states from protecting victims of serious crimes and hurt its efforts to fight the opioid crisis.

In November 2020, Rollins also noted certain judges who attempted to obstruct her reform efforts by denying requests from her prosecutors to dismiss charges for some low-level crimes. She had to go to the Supreme Judicial Court multiple times in order to appeal those cases.

“We’ve had to waste taxpayer resources to go up to SJC and win, not once, not twice but three times,” Rollins said. “We don’t mind winning, but we shouldn’t have to do this. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, and judges should just be doing what they’re supposed to do.”

She also expressed the need for a “diverse bench.” Specifically, she stated that, “We need people that understand societal failures that have resulted in a lot of these situations where people find themselves coming into contact with the criminal legal system.”

Despite these setbacks, many of Rollins’ supporters, including the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Lawyers for Civil Rights, Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, and NAACP, defended her decisions in a letter to the governor.

“The voters overwhelmingly elected DA Rollins to office because of her promise to revise current ineffective practices that have failed to address public health and public safety concerns,” the groups wrote. “The voters clearly demand a new approach to public safety.”

Not your typical prosecutor, Rachael Rollins’ career as the Suffolk County District Attorney and progressive prosecutor in Massachusetts, was inspired by her family history – two of Rollins’s siblings were incarcerated, and the third struggled with an opioid addiction.

In addition to Rollins’ pledge to not prosecute low-level, nonviolent offenses, she also focuses on allocating limited resources toward more serious matters, rather than pouring extraneous money into minute charges, and respecting people no matter which side of the bars they are on.

Like other progressive prosecutors, Rollins’ role in the courtroom is to change the power dynamic, she said. With the power to set his/her own agenda and push “a holistic approach to criminal justice,” as described by the Washington Post, these special prosecutors have a keen eye for injustice.

Rollins was “elected on platforms that included abandoning cash bail, declining low-level charges, not pursuing marijuana cases and closely scrutinizing police conduct – in efforts to reform a system that they say over-incarcerates and disproportionately punishes poor people and racial minorities,” according to the Washington Post.

Since being elected, Rollins has worked to expand alternatives to criminal prosecution, vowed to solve the 1,000 cold-case murders in Suffolk County, and hired data scientists to evaluate the impact of new policies.

Moving forward, she hopes to continue pushing for her progressive policies, and it won’t be easy.

Rahsaan Hall, director of ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, acknowledged that “she is one individual in a larger system that is highly problematic and has a deep history of racism and racially disparate prosecution and enforcement of law.”

Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.

Carlin Ross is a senior at Santa Clara University who double majors in English and Philosophy. She’s originally from Bozeman, Montana.


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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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