One year in, Rollins takes stock

Reflecting on her first year in office, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says one of the things she’s been most surprised at is how surprised some are about her determination to make major change and the blunt manner with which she sometimes approaches things.

“I was very honest and transparent about who I was going to be,” Rollins says on a new episode of The Codcast. “It’s been surprising, the reaction, because I told everyone what was going to happen when I won.”

Rolllins, the first black woman to be elected district attorney in Massachusetts, vowed during the 2018 race to join the national wave of rethinking the approach to the job of prosecutor. She promised to turn away from the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s that saw incarceration rates soar and embrace policies that try to avoid having lower-level offenders get caught in the web of the criminal justice system in ways that make it hard to get onto a more productive path.

Her signature policy pronouncement has been a pledge not prosecute, in most cases, those arrested for 15 lower-level offenses. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that Rollins says the biggest controversies she was involved in during her first year came from issues arising in district or municipal court, where such lower-level cases are heard, not in superior court where the most serious criminal charges are tried.

Two lower-level cases ended up before the Supreme Judicial Court. Both involved district or municipal court judges trying to block or usurp Rollins’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion. In one case, involving counterdemonstrators at a “straight pride” parade in Boston, her office sought to drop charges against a protester only to have a district court judge essentially rule that she couldn’t. The other case involved a Somali immigrant who faced loss of his permanent resident status if larceny conviction remained on his record. Rollins’s office, citing his years of good behavior and steady employment, sought to dismiss the case after a judge granted the defendant a new trial.

The SJC sided with Rollins’s office in both cases.

“We’ve had this power for centuries,” Rollins says of prosecutors’ right to determine whether to press forward with a case or not. “Nobody had a problem with prosecutorial discretion when we were on a freight train going 300 miles an hour toward mass incarceration. But now that I’m here and saying, can we slow this down a little bit or maybe turn the train around, everyone’s like, ‘what the…,’” she says. “There are lots of people invested in the system working exactly the way it is.”

If Rollins made no secret of her policy agenda during the 2018 campaign, she also showcased a blunt and straightforward style, something she has also not wavered from after taking office.

In April, after a letter to Rollins from Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety secretary, Thomas Turco, harshly criticizing her “do not prosecute” list was publicly released by the administration, Rollins slammed the governor. In defending her policy to reconsider the approach to charges she says disproportionately affect minority and lower-income communities, Rollins said, “Candidly, not everyone gets the benefit of the Baker family when they have interacted with the criminal justice system.”

It was a reference to a case involving allegations that Baker’s son, A.J., groped a woman on a JetBlue flight to Boston in 2018. No charges have been filed in the case, which was put under the oversight of the US attorney’s office.

Rollins said she never goes out of her way “to say something sort or flippant to our governor or flippant about x, y, or z. It’s in reaction to something happening. And what you don’t get to do is roundhouse kick someone in the face and then expect them to just smile.”

“The criticism I can absolutely take,” she said of Turco’s letter. But she said the manner in which it was released was “disrespectful to the people of Suffolk County” and to her, as the first woman to ever serve as Suffolk DA and first woman of color to hold a DA’s post anywhere in the state.

“They wouldn’t have done this to Dan Conley. They wouldn’t have done it to Ralph Martin,” Rollins said of her two immediate predecessors. “And I said that out loud. And I said, they would have picked up the phone and said whatever they wanted to say, and had they done that first, I would have no problem with what they were saying.”

Rollins says she has regular interactions with US Attorney Andrew Lelling and Michael Leary, the president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, despite not being on the same page as them on many issues. When Rollins and Middlesex DA Marian Ryan joined a lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to block agents from making arrests at local state courthouses, she said she gave Lelling a heads-up.

“I called US Attorney Lelling prior to filing that and we had a conversation,” she says. “I think you can be respectful and disagree.”

MICHAEL JONAS


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BEACON HILL

The state is suspending a farm aid food program temporarily because, even with a $2.5 million budget increase, it’s running out of money. (CommonWealth) The editorial board of The Salem News says the program needs more funding.

Rep. William Pignatelli of Lenox says the governor’s proposed hike in Uber and Lyft fees is another move to have people in western Massachusetts subsidize the MBTA. (Berkshire Eagle)

John Pourbaix of Construction Industries of Massachusetts says the state needs more money to repair its roads and bridges. (CommonWealth)

In Worcester, concerns are raised about Gov. Baker’s proposal to limit access to vital records. (Telegram & Gazette)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A former firefighter’s union official who strongly backed Mayor Marty Walsh’s 2013 campaign was quietly installed in a fire department job that pays $171,000 a year. (Boston Globe)

Vandals targeted Plymouth Rock and other waterfront monuments with red spray paint overnight Sunday. (Patriot Ledger)

Joseph O’Donnell of Belmont Capital proposes 828 market-rate apartments on a 17-acre property on the Lynn waterfront that has sat vacant for decades. (Daily Item)

Former New Bedford mayor Rosemary Tierney died. (Standard-Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The head of a national association of about 1,100 federal judges has called an emergency meeting for today to discuss intervention in judicial matters by President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. (Washington Post)

ELECTIONS

Michael Bloomberg surges in a poll and makes it on to the debate stage in Nevada. (NBC) Bloomberg, who is getting pummelled for some of his less-than-progressive past pronouncements on race and financial services, is set to announce a Wall Street regulation plan today that leans left and reverses some of the billionaire’s past positions. (New York Times)

Adam Eichens of EqualCitizens US and Joshua Douglas of the University of Kentucky College of Law make the case for giving 16-year-olds the right to vote. (CommonWealth)

IMMIGRATION

Immigrtion and Customs Enforcement calls in reinforcements to sanctuary cities, including Boston. (CommonWealth) Immigration advocates slam President Trump for moving ICE units from the border to sanctuary cities. (Eagle-Tribune)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

From chefs to chemists, the marijuana industry is creating diverse new jobs. (MassLive)

The Boy Scouts of America filed for banktrupcy amid sex abuse lawsuits (AP)

A seafood expo in Boston expects to see fewer Chinese exhibitors due to coronavirus. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Sky-high rents in Boston and Cambridge are spilling out and affecting communities from Everett to Worcester. (Boston Herald)

With a list of 49 conditions, the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals approved a draft decision for a housing project. (Cape Cod Times)

John Henry and the Red Sox brass held a press briefing to explain the business of dealing away franchise superstar Mookie Betts. It did not go well. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

The black-white graduation rate gap in the Boston Public Schools widened dramatically last year and the overall graduation rate for the district dropped for the first time in a decade. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Boston Marathon officials say they are closely monitoring developments with the coronavirus after the Tokyo Marathon announced that it will only allow elite elite runners to compete in the March 1 race, cutting out thousands of others to reduce the chances of spread of the virus. (Boston Herald) The director of a Wuhan, China, hospital has died of the virus, becoming the most prominent victim yet of the respiratory contagion. (Washington Post)

UMass researchers develop a germ-killing fabric. (State House News Service)

TRANSPORTATION

Transit advocate Ari Ofsevit says the coming T shutdowns offer an opportunity to showcase the potential of bus rapid transit. (CommonWealth)

Bradley Campbell of the Conservation Law Foundation and Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters accuse Gov. Charlie Baker of trying to dismantle the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. They, instead, advocate for keeping the existing board, adding riders to its ranks over time, and expanding its priorities. (WBUR)

Robin Chase and Doug Foy call for a rethinking of the I-90 Allston interchange project, one that starts, not ends, with building a new commuter rail station and turns Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road into a “surface boulevard” with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. (Boston Globe)

Police prepare to enforce new hands-free driving law. (MassLive)

Worcester area politicians say East-West Rail could bring economic growth to the region. (Telegram & Gazette)

Will Massachusetts use rail-hailing fees just to generate revenue or to change behavior and reduce auto congestion? (Boston Globe)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

In the wake of a hunger strike against the Weymouth compressor station, Marcy Reed of National Grid makes the case that hunger could be an argument for such infrastructure. (CommonWealth)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledges $10 billion to create the Bezos Earth Fund to fight climate change. (WBUR)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Legislators describe horrible conditions at Souza-Baranowski prison. (MassLive)

Fall River businessman Antonio Costa, who is set to testify in the federal government’s case against former mayor Jasiel Correia II, has placed a property up for sale with a price tag of $2 million. (Herald News)

Thieves broke into a Herb Chambers dealership in Wayland, took some keys, and stole two Lamborghinis. (MetroWest Daily News)