A first take from Suffolk DA hopefuls
Henning, viewed as moderate in the race, insists he would have voted for reform bill
THE FIRST candidate forum in the race for Suffolk County district attorney gave the five Democrats running a chance to lay out their vision for the office and, in one case, clarify a view that the campaign says was misrepresented.
The race is unfolding as the country is going through a rethinking of tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. In Massachusetts, that has taken the form of a sweeping criminal justice bill, passed overwhelmingly last week by the Legislature, which now sits on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
All five of the candidates voiced degrees of support for reforms that move away from tough-on-crime policies at the Monday night forum in Jamaica Plain jointly sponsored by JP Progressives and the Boston NAACP.
“Too many families are suffering because of our broken criminal justice system that has led to mass incarceration, criminalization of the youth, and criminalization of mental health and addiction,” said Evandro Carvalho, a state representative from Dorchester who previously worked as an assistant district attorney under outgoing DA Dan Conley, who is giving up the seat after 16 years.
Shannon McAuliffe, a former public defender who most recently directed the Boston office of Roca, a Chelsea-based nonprofit that works to help turn around gang members, offered perhaps the strongest denunciation of the status quo. “The classic approach of the war on crime, prosecuting at all costs, and mass incarceration – it hasn’t only just failed us, it’s cost of billions of dollars and it’s made all of us less safe,” she said.
Rachael Rollins, a former state and federal prosecutor who also served as general counsel to Massport, the MBTA, and the state Department of Transportation, said the state is “at a crossroads.” She said the DA’s office needs “a new lens” to view the criminal justice system and touted her management experience, saying if the next DA isn’t someone who can effectively implement the big changes in the criminal justice reform bill “it will be for nothing.”
The candidate who may have drawn the most interest when asked about the reform measure on Beacon Hill was Greg Henning, who spent 10 years as a Suffolk County prosecutor and has the support of Conley and lots of others in the DA’s office.
“I want to make my position on this extremely clear in case there was any confusion: If I were a legislator, I would support this bill and vote for it,” Henning said before a packed auditorium at English High School.
It was a startling statement because it reversed the way his position was characterized in a piece written last week by WGBH News contributor David Bernstein. The story raised the possibility that four reform-minded candidates, some of whom don’t think the bill goes far enough, could split up the progressive primary vote and hand the race to Henning, “the only candidate who would have voted no on the legislation.”
Bernstein reported that, while Henning saw some positive elements in the bill, including new stiffer penalties for selling fentanyl, “he would have urged legislators to vote no” without certain changes.
The situation seems a bit muddled.
Bernstein said on Tuesday that “it’s very possible there was miscommunication” and that the campaign did not tell him Henning would have voted against the bill. At the same time, Bernstein said, voting yes on the bill was definitely not the position the campaign told him Henning held on the legislation.
Henning said there are things in the bill that he would like to see reconsidered, and said there were also reforms not included in the bill that he would favor. During the forum, he singled out the fact that it does not include any funding for reentry services. “The bill doesn’t address recidivism in the most opportune way,” he said. “That’s essential and that’s an area that’s missing in the bill.”
McAuliffe and Rollins also both raised the absence of funding for reentry as shortcomings of the legislation. Carvalho said he is proposing a $5 million appropriation for community-based, residential reentry programs in the budget lawmakers are about to take up.
On Tuesday, Henning spelled out two concerns he has with the bill, pointing to a provision that would prevent parents from testifying against their minor children in almost all cases. A second concern, he said, is a provision that would allow a judge to divert away from criminal sanctions cases of assault and battery even when prosecutors and the victim want to see the case prosecuted.
It’s important to “make sure that victims’ views and victims’ input are taken seriously and not overlooked,” he said.
Henning, who has drawn lots of fundraising support from Boston police officers – as well as a $500 contribution from Conley – seems to have a lock on the more moderate and conservative-learning voters who will cast ballots in the September 4 primary.
That is raising concerns that the progressive vote could be splintered among the other candidates and that Henning could win with support of less than a majority of primary voters. (No Republicans have announced for the seat, making the Democratic primary tantamount to the final election in the race.)A number of progressive groups are planning to make endorsements, a process that liberal activists hope will lead to a coalescing around a candidate in the race. Last night’s forum marked the start of the endorsement process for JP Progressives, the local affiliate of the statewide group Progressive Massachusetts.
“I would hope that if one candidate really does shine over the next month that there would be rally around a specific candidate as the banner progressive candidate in the race — but I don’t know who that will be,” Jonathan Cohn, co-chair of the issues committee for Progressive Massachusetts, said before last night’s forum.