It’s not like she tricked us.
As a candidate for Suffolk County district attorney last year, Rachael Rollins made clear that, if elected, she intended to prosecute even fewer low-level crimes than the retiring incumbent, Dan Conley. Part of a wave of reform-minded DA candidates, Rollins tapped into the popular backlash against ’90s-era tough-on-crime strategies that have sent too many people to prison, saddled too many Americans with criminal records for nonviolent offenses, and wasted taxpayer money on needless incarceration.
She won with a strong plurality in the Democratic primary — then took 80 percent of the vote in November.
Now Rollins is carrying out the agenda that an overwhelming majority of Suffolk County voters chose. If her execution of that policy has been bumpy — and a recent report in the Globe suggests that it has been — that should only lead her to refine her approach, not abandon it. While she’s at it, she’d help her own cause immensely by developing a thicker skin in the face of the inevitable criticism and dropping the unlawyerly statements that only diminish her work.
First, the record: A Globe review found that, in keeping with her campaign promises, Rollins’s prosecutors have dismissed more cases than the office did under her predecessor. For instance, the Globe found that she dismissed 40 percent more cases in the Boston Municipal Court’s downtown courthouse than Conley did during the same period in the previous year.
That means fewer defendants burdened with a criminal record for petty crimes like shoplifting and disturbing the peace. And it also allows prosecutors to spend more time focusing on violent offenses.
Some of Rollins’s opponents would have you believe she’s turned Suffolk County into a veritable Wild West, as if whole categories of crime had just been de facto legalized. But the prosecutorial policy changes Rollins announced in a March memo were, as she put it, “neither radical nor untested”: Under Conley, prosecutors had already cut back prosecuting minor charges and juvenile offenses in favor of diversion programs, restorative justice, and other non-prison solutions, without triggering a surge in crime. What Rollins put in place was an evolution, not a revolution — a continuation of the move away from the lock-’em-up era.
The Rollins memo also recognized that a never-prosecute policy could be as rigid and unjust as an always-prosecute strategy. It said that under most circumstances the DA’s office will not prosecute 15 minor crimes, including disorderly conduct, drug possession, shoplifting, and trespassing. But the memo makes clear that the prosecutor in the courtroom “always retains discretion to seek a deviation from this policy when a person poses an identifiable threat to another individual or other circumstances of similar gravity.” Likewise, the memo says that the office would take into account factors like drug addiction and poverty that might contribute to criminal behavior — but didn’t say they’d constitute a get-out-of-jail-free card.
How exactly to translate that written policy to actual cases in the courtroom seems to have produced the troubling cases identified by the Globe from the first months of Rollins’s tenure. The most questionable was the decision to allow the perpetrator of a vicious assault in Charlestown to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges and avoid prison, against the wishes of the victim. Violent offenses were not on the list of 15 charges Rollins said she wouldn’t pursue. Instead, Rollins’s prosecutors said the fact he didn’t have a prior record and was seeking drug addiction treatment weighed in his favor. Given the severity of the attack — the victim suffered brain damage — this was a case where the discretion she promised should have been used in the victim’s favor.
Rollins said she is still fine-tuning her policy, and is open to tweaks. But she also took umbrage with the Globe’s questions, saying she’d been subject to more scrutiny than her male predecessors, and implied that since judges were unelected their views should carry less weight than hers. And in explaining the way she evaluated cases, she made a statement that could well come back to haunt her: “I represent not just the victim, but the defendant and the community.” The entire criminal justice system relies on adversarial proceedings to function. It’s certainly true that her job is to represent the community — but it’s a defense lawyer’s job to represent the defendant. A prosecutor’s words are important, and she should have chosen hers more carefully. This follows a dust-up with Governor Baker, when she responded to policy disagreements with personal barbs about the governor’s son.
It’s a shame, because if she focuses on the policy, Rollins has a good story to tell. For all the publicity it generated, her policy memo really just shifted the presumption against charging in those 15 categories, and formalized the practice of considering addiction and poverty in charging decisions. She hasn’t created bedlam on the streets of Suffolk County, and prosecution is ultimately still what it’s always been: a judgement call. Clarifying her policies for those actually in the courtroom is essential, but that doesn’t mean she should retreat from them.