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