Rollins brings welcome change

DA unfairly hit for following through on reform agenda

SUFFOLK COUNTY District Attorney’s Rachael Rollins’s bold stances around criminal justice in Massachusetts are good for democracy.

Her proposals to effectively limit the criminal stigma of some illegal offenses — such as shoplifting and trespassing — that disproportionately impact people of color and the poor have ruffled political feathers.  But her approach is well-grounded and politically on target.

Rollins evinces a clear-eyed understanding about how racialized prosecutorial policies can destroy lives and leave some communities full of fractured families and fragile local economies. When black men are sent to jail for offenses that affluent white men can defend themselves on with excellent legal help, the results are broken homes and neighborhoods draped in poverty due to unemployment connected to incarceration histories.

Last week Rollins was blindsided by Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety secretary, Thomas Turco, who urged her to “reconsider” policy decisions he felt were soft on crime. Turco suggested that Rollins’s policies could disrupt “public safety” while abandoning “government’s continuing responsibility” to punish legal miscreants.

To be sure, Turco may have credible and accepted ideas about the application of law. Few doubt Turco is a consummate professional with felt sensitivities about the complexities of fostering functional public safety policies.

But Turco seems to lacks a sense of the racial justice that Rollins is seeking.

To highlight her positions around criminality and racialized prosecutions, Rollins has pointed to the seeming disparity between the treatment of Baker’s son – who was alleged to have groped a woman last year on an airplane — and blacks in Boston who might easily be prosecuted for lesser offenses. For Rollins the scales of justice are compromised by race.

The reforms Rollins are making include her refusal to prosecute misdemeanors that administratively tangle the legal system and ensnare blacks and the poor in lives stained with criminality.

Rollins is right. People might disagree over what crimes are important to prosecute. They may debate picayune matters relative to theories around arrest statistics. But they can’t dispute that the prosecution of some crimes — particularly petty crimes — impact specific communities more than others.  And they can’t dispute that blacks and the poor represent disproportionate inmates in the Commonwealth’s carceral system.

The realities of mass incarceration were targets of the criminal justice reform legislation signed by Gov. Baker last year. Baker was wise to support the important reforms. Yet there is a clear case to be made for the need for further adjustments to the justice system that remain unaddressed.

This is where issues of democracy becomes salient. Questions need to be raised about the extent to which the disproportionate punishment and incarceration of black, brown, and poor people is appropriate in light of our commitment to a fairer Commonwealth. Questions must be asked about our complicity in sentencing young black boys in Boston to a school-to-prison pipeline without any sense of fairness. Questions must be engaged when we turn a blind eye to poor communities whose conditions are directly related to the inability of formerly incarcerated black men to find jobs.

Ostensibly, Rollins is a prosecutorial gadfly. She raises important issues that should challenge us. This mentality is good for democracy, no matter how much ruckus it raises.

“Disruptive ideas will always meet resistance from established institutions,” US Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted last week in reaction to the dust-up between Rollins and Baker.

We should all be mindful that Rollins was chosen to lead through the democratic process. She was voted in to office — people casts ballots believing that she would best represent their best interest. Rollins never hid her prosecutorial proclivities as she campaigned last year. Her philosophy was transparent, and voters endorsed her.

Rollins should be allowed to lead. In the interest of democracy, she should be able to address those issues of race and class that other lawmakers and policymakers simply may not be able to discern.

Meet the Author

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition, which focuses on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice.