Hayden eschews labels, vows to ‘do the right thing’ as DA
New Suffolk prosecutor hints at campaign launch, says justice and public safety can co-exist
KEVIN HAYDEN says the heightened attention in recent years to racial bias in the criminal justice system or ways that the most punitive outcome in a case isn’t always the best outcome are a welcome trend, but are nothing new for him. The newly appointed Suffolk County district attorney said he has always viewed the job of a prosecutor’s office as being to guard public safety while also dispensing justice in a way that looks to heal communities and doesn’t perpetuate racist structures that may have contributed to disparate treatment of those who enter the criminal legal system.
Hayden spent more than a decade in the Suffolk DA’s office, from 1997 to 2008, where his responsibilities included directing the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, which brought community members and law enforcement together to devise strategies to combat gang violence and other community problems. If anything, he said, what’s happened is viewpoints that he has long embraced have become more widely accepted.
“I don’t know if I see it too much differently than I did before,” Hayden said of the role of the DA’s office. “I was involved in so many of the things that have become more of a focal point now for a more holistic and broader view of what prosecution should be. And so for me, personally, it really hasn’t changed much. I would say that what has changed in that respect, though, is just a broader view and a broader consensus around ways that I already felt for so long.”
Hayden, who also spent time in private legal practice, referred to his return to the DA’s office as a “coming home in so many ways” – and he made it clear he aims to stay there for a while by seeking a full four-year term this fall.
Hayden doesn’t embrace the progressive label when asked whether he considers himself part of that movement among prosecutors. “I feel I’m going to be part of doing what’s right,” he said. “And I think that a lot of the notions that people are now characterizing as progressive are just the right things to do – whether it’s reducing our carceral footprint, whether it’s equity in our legal system, whether it’s not criminalizing homelessness, poverty, those sorts of things. Those are the right things to do. I don’t think those belong to any party.”
Hayden conceded that “doing the right thing” can mean different things to different people, and it seems clear that he’s trying to find some middle ground.
“I think too far left and too far right are a dangerous place to be,” he said.
Hayden disagrees with calls, for example, to do away with the Boston Police Department’s gang database, which has been criticized for sweeping up too many young people through its system for designating gang affiliation. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ordered the federal Board of Immigration Appeals to reconsider the deportation order issued against a Salvadoran national living in East Boston who was included in the police gang database.
“I think the gang database needs to exist, and I think it needs to be used properly,” Hayden said. “And that, I think, is going to take a lot of hard work and examination and self-examination to make sure that it’s not used in a disparate manner and to make sure that it’s being used fairly.” Hayden said the Boston police have acknowledged the need for changes. He said that will probably mean “some paring down” of the point system used as a criteria for determining gang affiliation. “That being said, I don’t think it should go away entirely. I don’t think you can throw away the baby with the bathwater,” he said. “I think it would hamper law enforcement significantly and could have a detrimental impact on overall public safety in Suffolk County.”
As for Rollins’s most well-known policy – her declaration that the office’s default position would be not to prosecute a list of 15 lower-level offenses – Hayden isn’t committing to maintaining it, but he said he fully endorses “the overall notion behind it – the idea that our carceral footprint needs to be reduced, the notion that lower level crimes and criminalizing things like poverty, criminalizing things like race, criminalizing things like homelessness or drug addiction shouldn’t happen or at least not happen without some very careful introspection as to what you’re doing with that case.”
A study released last year found that those not prosecuted under Rollins’s policy were more than 50 percent less likely to face a new criminal complaint over the following two years than those who faced prosecution for similar charges.
“If you ‘revolving door’ a shoplifter six times through the system in a year [and don’t prosecute the case] every time without addressing the actual underlying issue as to why that’s happening, then you haven’t helped anybody, you haven’t helped the community that he’s shoplifting from, you haven’t helped him or her,” Hayden said.
Rollins often brought a no-holds-barred approach to issues, lashing out publicly at one point at Baker and his public safety secretary and berating a television news crew that appeared outside her home. Asked how he’ll come off to the public after a DA who made quite a splash, the more buttoned-down Hayden said, “I hope I’ll make equal splashes. I don’t know if I’ll do it in the same way.”
“I’m a man of deep faith,” Hayden said when asked to describe himself. “My faith and my spiritual walk is vitally important to me. It’s not something I do just when I go to church on Sunday,” said Hayden, who worships at Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan. “It informs a lot of who I am. It informs how I view the world. I believe people can change. I believe that they don’t necessarily have to be thrown under the jail and buried there. That same spiritual walk that I’m on also has accountability in it and has responsibility – social responsibility, community responsibility – all incorporated into it, and that’s a huge part of what guides me.”
Hayden said he plans to prioritize the office’s handling of gun prosecutions, but he said even for these cases, he won’t take a one-size-fits-all approach that seeks to charge every case under the state’s stringent gun possession statute, which involves a mandatory-minimum sentence for those convicted.
Boston has had far lower homicide and gun violence rates than most US cities, something Hayden said he’s determined to maintain – and try to improve on. Boston had just 40 homicides last year, while Baltimore, with nearly 100,000 fewer residents, had nearly 10 times as many with 337 murders. Hayden said the city’s enviable track record is the product of work over many years that recognized the vital role of partnerships between law enforcement and the community. “Boston, Suffolk County has been engaged in this thing we call community prosecution and policing for a long, long time, and working really hard at it and recognizing that there needs to be a heavy dose of intervention and prevention before you get to enforcement,” he said.
Later on Monday, Hayden’s office announced the formation of an 18-member community advisory committee. The panel, co-chaired by Rev. Ray Hammond, a founder of the clergy-led Ten Point Coalition that took on gang violence starting in the 1990s, and Robert Gittens, who has served in top human services roles in state government and was formerly the first assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, will evaluate and make recommendations on the full range of activities of the DA’s office.
Hayden, a Democrat who grew up in Newton and now lives in Roslindale, has not formally announced that he plans to run for the DA’s post this fall when the current term expires, but it was clear in the interview that he will be looking to win a full, four-year term.
“An announcement will be coming soon,” he said, before adding that “taking a job for nine months is not where my focus was when I took the appointment.”
No other candidates have announced a run for the office.
Hayden’s excitement at the challenge of his new position has been tempered by the death of his father on January 23. Robert Hayden, who was 84 when he died on Martha’s Vineyard where he had lived for many years, was the author of several books of Black history, including African-Americans in Boston: More than 350 Years. He worked in various roles in education, including as executive director of the METCO program in the early 1970s. In the 1980s he served for several years as president of the Boston NAACP.My dad impacted everything I’ve done and where I am right now,” Hayden said. “He ingrained a tremendous sense of Black pride and Black history in me and my sisters.” He “poured his spirit for the passion for Black history into this entire Boston community, and he’s the one who inspired me to a life of public service.”