ACLU campaign to spotlight crucial role of DAs
Poll shows many voters don’t believe criminal justice system is working fairly
THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION of Massachusetts says it plans to mount a campaign this fall urging voters to hold the state’s elected district attorneys accountable for the way the criminal justice system works.
The impetus for the campaign grew out of a poll released Wednesday indicating that nearly half of Massachusetts voters believe the state’s criminal justice is not working fairly and nearly three-quarters say it is discriminatory.
Although the state’s 11 district attorneys handle the overwhelming share of all criminal cases in the state, 53 percent of respondents said DAs have a minor or no impact on the criminal justice system, and 38 percent were not aware that district attorneys are elected by voters in their county.
“There is a clear opportunity to increase voter engagement in district attorney races,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU, in a conference call with reporters.
Forty-five percent of those surveyed said the criminal justice system is not working, and 73 percent said it works differently for different people. More than eight out of 10 respondents said the state should work to change the system to eliminate any biases based on who people know or the color of their skin.
“Virtually everyone we spoke with thinks there’s an unfairness of some kind in the system, but very few understand the power centers,” said Chris Anderson of Anderson Robbins Research, which conducted the poll.
The poll and planned public education campaign come as Beacon Hill lawmakers consider a range of criminal justice reform proposals this year, including changes to bail laws and mandatory minimum sentences. “In many instances it is the district attorneys who stand in opposition to some of those major reforms,” said Hall.
While there is strong support among Beacon Hill leaders for a bill aimed at reducing offender recidivism, there is no clear agreement on further measures, including changes to sentencing laws.
While they said it is important for voters to hold district attorneys accountable for running their offices fairly, and pointed out that many of the state’s DAs run for reelection unopposed, the ACLU officials said they were not targeting individual prosecutors.
“We’re not out to get any individual district attorney,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the state ACLU. “We don’t get involved in that level of politics. What we do is get involved in voter education.”
When asked about qualities and skills they think are very important for a candidate for district attorney, 91 percent of poll respondents said “a reputation for honesty and doing what’s right” is very important, and 79 percent said “a commitment to racial justice” is very important. Those factors ranked higher than experience as a prosecutor, which 65 percent said was very important.
“Reform-minded district attorneys across the country are following the course that DA Conley has been charting in Suffolk County for years,” said Wark, who pointed to Conley’s work to identify and prevent wrongful convictions, his position as the only DA in the state to support then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s successful CORI reform efforts, and his expansion of “problem-solving specialty courts” serving the homeless, the mentally ill, veterans, and those dealing with addiction that divert offenders away from jail and toward treatment and services.
Tara Maguire, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, called the ACLU poll “self-serving,” and pointed to a poll released in May by MassINC that found that 75 percent of Massachusetts voters had a lot of confidence or some confidence in the criminal justice system. MassINC is the parent organization that publishes CommonWealth.
The ACLU poll, conducted in late May and early June among 618 registered voters in the state, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The ACLU’s planned public education campaign comes as criminal justice reform advocates nationally are focusing on the crucial role of prosecutors. While reform advocates have often been pitted against prosecutors in policy debates, there is a growing movement to make DAs allies, not adversaries, in the effort to reorient criminal justice policies away from practices that have led to high rates of incarceration.
That’s the focus of work by Adam Foss, a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney, who launched an organization called Prosecutor Integrity that advocates for electing reform-minded prosecutors. A TED talk Foss delivered last year, titled “A Prosecutor’s Vision for a Better Justice System,” has garnered more than 1.6 million views.
“Every day, thousands of times a day, prosecutors around the United States wield power so great that it can bring about catastrophe as quickly as it can bring about opportunity, intervention, support, and, yes, even love,” Foss said in the talk.
“If our communities are broken, don’t let the lawyers that you elect fix them with outdated, inefficient, and expensive methods. Demand more. Vote for the prosecutor that is helping people stay out of jail, not putting them in,” Foss said in his talk.Foss, who worked under Conley, suggested in his talk that the Suffolk DA’s office was taking that approach. “I learned the power of the prosecutor to change lives instead of ruining them. That’s how we do it in Boston,” he said. “We helped a woman who was arrested for stealing groceries to feed her kids get a job,” he said, ticking off several other examples of cases where the office sought help, not jail, for a defendant.