O’Keefe jumps jurisdictions with charges against Rollins

Cape DA unloads on Boston’s new prosecutor

THE STATE’S DISTRICT ATTORNEYS are generally in the business of bringing charges against alleged criminal offenders, not against each other.

But Cape and Islands DA Michael O’Keefe’s op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe amounted to a full-on indictment of fellow DA Rachael Rollins, who was elected Suffolk County’s top prosecutor last fall.

O’Keefe unloads on a new category of prosecutor he dubs the “social justice district attorney.” Though he never mentions Rollins by name, there is no mistaking the target of his charges.

He disparages this new breed of social justice candidate for DA who makes “grand pronouncements and, as here in Boston, proclaims that entire categories of crime will no longer be prosecuted.”

O’Keefe is referring to a policy pronouncement Rollins made during the campaign, which she reaffirmed after taking office, that the default position of her office would be not to prosecute a list of 15 lower-level offenses. Rollins has said the charges often stem from problems of poverty and addiction, and that pursuing charges only gets people tangled up in the criminal justice system with a record that makes it harder to get on track and escape the rut of recidivism that many offenders fall in.

Rollins has actually been far less than absolute in applying the policy, a fact that has earned some pushback from advocates looking for the wholesale change she campaigned on.

But if Rollins has disappointed some by going too slowly, she’s been aggressive enough in calling for change that O’Keefe’s broadside isn’t the first attack on her from a fellow law enforcement official.

Early last month, Rollins got into a nasty dust-up with the Baker administration after it released publicly a letter to her from Public Safety Secretary Thomas Turco criticizing the do-not-prosecute policy. Rollins hit back hard in defending her policy. She even invoked the case involving allegations that Gov. Charlie Baker’s son groped a fellow passenger on an airline flight — an incident for which no charges have been filed — saying, “not everyone gets the benefit of the Baker family when they have interacted with the criminal justice system.”

There has long been a strong bond among the state’s 11 district attorneys. They are the frontline face of the criminal justice system, the ones who apply state law in the hundreds of day-to-day matters that land in court, and the DAs often form a united front in speaking out on proposed changes to criminal statutes on Beacon Hill or on other policy matters.

Sometimes that consensus is broken. Last year, for example, two of the 11 DAs — Middlesex DA Marian Ryan and Northwestern DA David Sullivan did not sign a letter the other nine submitted that was critical of the Senate version of Beacon Hill’s big criminal justice reform legislation.

But that’s a far cry from sending a direct shot across the bow of a fellow DA, as O’Keefe has done.

The veteran Republican DA’s op-ed amounted to a full-throated defense of the criminal justice system status quo, arguing that attacks on the system for demographic disparities in incarceration are entirely misplaced.

“It’s harder to blame, for example, the disintegration of the family, a lack of respect for discipline and education, and the glorification in some communities of a culture that celebrates disrespectful language and misogyny under the guise of art,” writes O’Keefe. “I suspect that these factors are more influential regarding who is in jail or prison than an inert criminal justice system.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

O’Keefe is apparently unmoved by the calls to dial back several decades of heightened criminal justice sanctions, which have come not just from conservatives’ favorite punching bag, George Soros, whom he singles out for opprobrium, but from Republican governors and the right-leaning Koch brothers as well.

Rollins has repeatedly pointed out that her views were made clear on the campaign trail, and that voters spoke clearly as well. She has yet to respond to O’Keefe, but it’s safe to assume she views Barnstable County more as a getaway for beach and barbeque than a place from which to take direction on running the Suffolk DA’s office.