DAs need to be held accountable

ACLU campaign seeks to inform voters about power of district attorneys

WHO ARE THE MOST POWERFUL people in the criminal justice system?

A lot of people quickly say, judges. The real answer: district attorneys.

Look no further than the timely case study currently unfolding in the Commonwealth’s highest court. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear a case involving the fallout from the misconduct of former state drug lab chemist Sonja Farak.

Almost every day for eight years, while working as a state chemist in the Amherst lab, Farak manufactured drugs, stole samples, and tested evidence while under the influence, throwing thousands of drug cases into question. Since her arrest in 2013, Farak’s lab misconduct has been compounded by district attorneys’ delay in identifying the “Farak Defendants” and failure to notify them about the violations of their rights. Every day, people bear the burdens of unjust convictions, tainted first by Sonja Farak and subsequently by prosecutorial misconduct. That’s why – in September – the ACLU sued the Attorney General and all 11 district attorneys, seeking a list and dismissal of all cases tainted by the drug lab scandal.  Nearly three months later, the district attorneys agreed to dismiss thousands of cases.

Prior to our lawsuit, there were no actions taken – or intentions shown – to address the cases impacted by the misconduct. The Supreme Judicial Court now has the opportunity to not only vacate more than 8,000 unfair convictions, but to establish a new precedent to address prosecutorial misconduct going forward.

The Amherst drug lab misconduct is just one example of the depth and breadth of the power wielded by district attorneys: they play a major role in determining the way criminal cases are initiated and ultimately resolved. They employ a substantial amount of power throughout the judicial process – from charging decisions to sentencing recommendations. They can even take away your property – even if you haven’t been convicted of a crime; civil asset forfeiture is a way for prosecutors to seize property and money that law enforcement officers believe may be connected to criminal activity. Outside of the courtroom, DAs help set policies. Despite efforts to reform the criminal legal system and promote a more fair and equitable system of justice, DAs too often oppose important justice reforms and use their influence in the Legislature to encourage lawmakers to do the same.

District attorneys’ main responsibility should be to pursue justice on behalf of the Commonwealth when people are accused of breaking the law.  But the Amherst drug lab scandal, like the Hinton drug lab scandal before it, demonstrates the key role our district attorneys play in determining the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal legal system itself. This is a system that voters agree needs work; a 2017 poll shows that more than eight-in-10 voters think Massachusetts needs to reform our criminal justice system. Eighty-eight percent of voters think Massachusetts should work to change the system so that people are not treated differently based simply on who they know – and 84 percent of voters think Massachusetts should work to change the criminal legal system so that people are not treated differently based on their race.

If district attorneys are in the business of justice, they need to work harder to ensure a fair justice system for everyone.  They also need to be held accountable. District attorneys answer only to voters, with little in the way of checks-and-balances in between elections. The 2017 poll shows that few Massachusetts voters know this – but after hearing facts about the everyday impact that district attorneys can have on individual lives, 81 percent of voters say they are more likely to pay attention to their local district attorney race this coming November.

That’s why the ACLU of Massachusetts – together with a broad network of partner organizations – is setting out to inform voters about one of our most powerful elected officials. A first-of-its-kind voter education campaign, “What a Difference a DA Makes,” recently launched to build awareness about the life-changing power wielded by district attorneys, and how voters can hold DAs accountable to encourage them to make fair and just decisions.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

For far too long, the criminal legal system has given preference to the connected and the wealthy, and voters say it’s time for a change. That starts with creating accountability for the most powerful people in the system: district attorneys.

 Carol Rose is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.