DAs should bring guiding hand to cases where disparity plays a role
I want to thank Yvonne Abraham for her column about our elected district attorneys in this state (“It matters who the DA is,” Metro, Feb. 8). Many voters don’t even realize that DAs hold an elected position and are subject to challenge.
With the opioid crisis in full bloom, it has become obvious that we need our police and district attorneys to partner with the communities they serve. While it is integral to the job of prosecuting criminals for the police and DAs to be allies, prosecutors must also serve as a guiding hand where they see economic and racial disparity in law enforcement.
Poverty, more than the nature of the crime committed, often determines who sits in jail awaiting trial, because people with money can come up with a few hundred dollars to get released, while those with no means are held, sometimes for months. Imagine the costs to one’s job security, the effects on people’s kids, and other impacts that occur when an unconvicted individual awaiting trial sits in jail.
The DA can decide whether a bail request is necessary. This should not be a rote decision, because losing one’s freedom and being locked up is an extreme consequence for any person.
It is a great idea to get to know your district attorney and to let those running the show of prosecuting criminals know that they, like the police, serve the people in their communities, both to protect us from crime, but also to prevent unnecessary, costly, and life-altering incarceration.
The writer is an attorney.
What if DAs were appointed instead of elected?
Yvonne Abraham is exactly right — it matters very much who the district attorney is. From Cape Cod to Pittsfield, DAs make huge decisions that affect families and communities, and their ideas on policy make a big difference on Beacon Hill. It’s quite likely, for example, that Massachusetts might be doing more on criminal justice reform, and might have decriminalized marijuana sooner, if not for the political clout of the DAs.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are working to bring attention to DAs so that community members can hold them accountable. This effort is noble, but it’s probably doomed to fail unless we reform the way Massachusetts chooses DAs.
Busy citizens have too much to do to study, say, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley’s management decisions. On Election Day, they have other fish to fry, from holding accountable governors and presidents to choosing their state representatives.
Today’s historic low crime level is causing people to want wisdom and balance from DAs. However, it might not take much of an increase in crime rates for voters to lean heavily to the most punitive prosecutors around, regardless of whether that is really good policy.
There’s a better way. District attorneys could be civil service appointees, selected by the governor. Governors are accountable to the people, and unlike district attorneys, there hasn’t been a governor who has run unopposed in the modern history of Massachusetts.
The writer is executive director of the Scholars Strategy Network. His views here are his own.