Boston professors criticize Globe over Rollins

19 academics send open letter to McGrory over contentious story

A group of 19 Boston-area university and law school faculty members sent an open letter to The Boston Globe in response to what they call “misleading reporting” about Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s efforts to create a more fair justice system in Boston. The open letter, penned by academics from Harvard, Northeastern University, Boston College, and Boston University, highlights how the Globe article did not provide “context that enables an objective, informative discussion.” The Globe story, by Andrea Estes and Shelley Murphy, said some prosecutors and police officials are concerned that Rollins is compromising public safety by letting low level offenses go unprosecuted, while her supporters complain that she should be dismissing more cases and setting lower bails. The letter to Globe editor Brian McGrory is below. 


WE ARE 19 FACULTY MEMBERS at universities across the Boston area, including Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, and Northeastern University. We wish to respond to The Boston Globe’s recent article, “Stopping injustice or putting the public at risk? Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins’s tactics spur pushback,” which contained reporting that appears to us to be, at best, seriously misleading. 

Local journalism plays a critical role in guiding public conversation around the issues that affect our sense of safety and justice. It is imperative that when reporting on these issues, journalists provide the factual context that readers need to understand the policy decisions that shape our local criminal justice system—context that enables an objective, informative discussion. Unfortunately, this article does not provide that necessary context. Instead, it relies upon a limited narrative structure to convey a clear, yet misleading, message to the reader: Rollins has gone too far, and the city is not safe. 

For example, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Mike Leary is quoted suggesting that District Attorney Rollins’s policies will drive “open drug dealing” and an increase in violent crime. That is an evidence-free statement calculated to incite fear in the reader, and to suggest that the district attorney’s policies are causing people in Boston to be unsafe. Largely unchallenged, these kinds of statements by law enforcement and politicians have driven decades of over-investment in criminal justice systems, resulting in serious structural problems reform-minded prosecutors are working to remedy. Yet, the Globe’s coverage carries water for this fear-mongering by failing to question the accuracy of Leary’s assertion that “[c]rime will go up. Shootings will occur,” or examining how this conclusion was reached. Indeed, reporters Estes and Murphy do not even attempt to place that statement in context of the research behind these policies: for instance, the currently low levels of serious crime compared to historic baselines, or the relationship between incarceration rates, crime rates, and levels of addiction and other drug-related harms. 

Nor are the handful of cases outlined in the article a fair measure of Rollins’s policies. Rollins has presented a specific vision of public safety and a rationale for policy decisions in her office memo. Agree or disagree with those decisions, it is clear they are grounded in academic research and motivated by public safety. Given that the Rollins memo is publicly available, this article should have contained context on why the district attorney believes the policies at issue in the article will result in more safety, not less. That context would have provided a balance to the unrebutted quotations from “experts” suggesting that these policies are antithetical to public safety. Instead, the absence of that context leaves room for us to wonder whether the reporters used a few isolated incidents and select quotations about those incidents in an effort to get Globe readers to draw particular conclusions about these policies. 

This article undermines the appearance of journalistic objectivity and fairness, and it is not the type of rigorous journalism that Globe readers expect and deserve. Now more than ever, we need journalism that exposes rather than stokes baseless fear and irrationality. Research has demonstrated that media coverage of criminal justice issues influences public opinion about punishment, which in turn has led to the political decisions behind mass incarceration. This article represents exactly the brand of journalism that fosters punitive public attitudes and creates the political conditions that drive up needless incarceration. Given what we now understand about the media’s role in contributing to mass incarceration, reputable media organizations like the Globe must demonstrate a more ethical and responsible approach to reporting on crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and safety. 

Leo Beletsky
Professor of Law and Health Sciences and Faculty Director, Health in Justice Action Lab
Northeastern University School of Law

Robert M. Bloom
Professor of Law
Boston College Law School

Mark S. Brodin
Professor of Law and Michael and Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar
Boston College Law School

Margaret A. Burnham
University Distinguished Professor of Law and Director, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project
Northeastern University School of Law

James Alan Fox
Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy
Northeastern University

Jorie Graham
Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric
Harvard University

David J. Harris
Managing Director
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute
Harvard Law School

Stephanie R. Hartung
Teaching Professor
Northeastern University School of Law

Elizabeth Hinton
John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences
Harvard History and African and African American Studies Departments 

Kari Hong
Assistant Professor of Law
Boston College Law School

Gerry Leonard
Professor of Law and Law Alumni Scholar
Boston University School of Law

Margo Lindauer
Director, Domestic Violence Clinic
Northeastern University School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Daniel S. Medwed
University Distinguished Professor of Law and Criminal Justice
Northeastern University

Michael Meltsner
George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law
Northeastern University School of Law

Deborah A. Ramirez
Professor of Law
Northeastern University School of Law 

Peter M. Sacks
John P. Marquand Professor
Harvard English Department 

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.
Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Criminal Justice Institute
Harvard Law School

Meet the Author

19 college professors

Professor, Colleges and law schools
Laurence H. Tribe
Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard Law School

Dehlia Umunna
Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Deputy Director, Criminal Justice Institute
Harvard Law School