Rollins takes office with reform agenda   

New Suffolk County prosecutor sworn in on platform of change

RACHAEL ROLLINS, who has broken barriers throughout a two-decade legal career, cracked another one on Wednesday as she became the first woman to serve as Suffolk County district attorney and the first black woman to hold a DA’s office anywhere in the state.

Rollins was sworn in before a packed crowd of several hundred at Roxbury Community College. The auditorium included a who’s who of local and state political figures, headlined by Gov. Charlie Baker, US Sen. Ed Markey, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who all delivered remarks during the ceremony.

Rollins rode to victory on a platform calling for a turn away from the tough-on-crime policies that sent incarceration rates soaring across the country in the 1980s and 90s. She has vowed to end the “criminalization” of poverty, mental illness, and addiction by steering more offenders to treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration. But she mostly stayed away from big policy points during a brief, six-minute address after being sworn in by former Supreme Judicial Court justice Geraldine Hines.

It was left to other speakers to characterize how things might change under her tenure.

“Her entire life has been as a warrior for justice,” said Markey, reaching back to a battle against gender discrimination Rollins helped lead when the UMass women’s lacrosse team was cut during her undergraduate years there in the early 1990s. “She recognizes that when justice is equally dispensed, lives are equally valued, and that must be our goal.”

Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell cited the bond she and Rollins share over siblings who have been involved in the criminal justice system – Campbell’s twin brother died seven years ago while in pretrial detention, the result, she said, of inadequate health care in the state corrections system.

“She will think about everyone currently in the system,” Campbell said of Rollins. “Those victims and survivors who need a very strong advocate and our young people who deserve a chance and possibly a second to achieve their God-given potential.”

Rollins’s parents, Esther and John Splaine, at her swearing-in as Suffolk County district attorney. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

The one policy Rollins briefly touched on was her pledge not prosecute a list of 15 lower-level offenses that she has said too often start younger defendants on a downward spiral of involvement in the criminal justice system. The policy has set off a backlash from some law enforcement officials.

Rollins acknowledged the presence of police leaders from Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop – the four communities that make up Suffolk County – and addressed them directly. “I have a lot of work to do with you guys, and I know you’re nervous,” she said. “But guess what? Nervousness is exactly what change needs, and we’re going to be OK.”

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, speaking before the swearing-in, sought to minimize any rift, suggesting Rollins plans to consider each case on its own merits.

“I’m very excited about working with the new district attorney,” Gross said. “Of course, there’s issues and concerns that everyone’s bringing up about a specialized list that won’t be prosecuted. I’ve spoken to the district attorney and she contextualized it in this manner: It’s going to be on a case by case basis. I can work with that. That’s fair.” Gross suggested that’s largely how such cases have been handled in the past.

Speaking with reporters after the swearing-in, Rollins also seemed to tamp down the controversy.

“We will hold people accountable on the misdemeanors on my list of 15, but accountability doesn’t have to mean jail,” she said. “But I’m eager to work with the police. They are exceptional, and we are going to have a good relationship.”

Rachael Rollins, Jan. 2, 2019

Rollins addresses reporters following her swearing in. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Rollins previously worked as a prosecutor in the US attorney’s office and served as general counsel to the state Department of Transportation, the MBTA, and Massport, the first black woman to hold that position at each agency.

She had never before run for office, but topped a five-way Democratic primary in September and went on to roll easily over an independent candidate in the November general election.

Walsh, in his remarks, referred to Rollins’s recent successful treatment for breast cancer. “She’s a survivor of cancer, a lifelong fighter against discrimination and injustice of all kinds, and she has defied and beaten the odds many times,” he said.

“I am grateful as mayor to have somebody in this vitally important position who identifies with the underdog,” Walsh said. “We’re a city that’s better off when we lift people up rather than lock people up.”

Rollins has emphasized the varied perspectives she brings to the job, citing past work as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer as well as the experience of two brothers who have cycled in and out of system for various offenses and a sister who has faced addiction issues.

Rollins takes office amidst a national wave of criminal justice reform efforts, including, most recently, a federal reform bill signed last month by President Trump. Last April, Baker signed a sweeping state reform bill that eliminated some mandatory minimum drug sentences and expanded opportunities to use “restorative justice” programs in place of traditional prosecution.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said his organization will work to hold Rollins accountable for her reform agenda, while also providing support and help in implementing the changes she has promised.

“It’s always hard to embrace change, particularly in a system where the mantra of the system is that the policies and practices of days of old are the things that have kept people safe,” he said. “But in reality, you look at the statistics and they don’t necessarily bear out that those are the best models for keeping people safe. Now we’ve got somebody with the courage and the boldness to step in and really try to do something different that will, at the same time, provide safety for people in communities but also justice for the people who have been victimized by the old way of doing things.”

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.

Rollins did make some news in addition to making history, announcing that Daniel Mulhern, Walsh’s top public safety advisor, will become the office’s first assistant and Donna Patalano has been tapped for the position of general counsel.

Mulhern, the city’s director of public safety under Walsh, previously worked for nearly 15 years as a prosecutor, including as chief of the gang unit under former Suffolk DA Dan Conley. Patalano, who previously directed the conviction integrity unit in the Suffolk DA’s office, waged an unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge last year against Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.