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OPINION

Suffolk County may lose one of its most prominent leaders on criminal justice

District Attorney Rachael Rollins may become the next US attorney.

Rollins’s departure before her term ends in 2022 would be a loss to the city and could drain considerable energy out of the district’s criminal justice movement.
Rollins’s departure before her term ends in 2022 would be a loss to the city and could drain considerable energy out of the district’s criminal justice movement.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File/2020

Suffolk County district attorney Rachael Rollins is in the running to become the next US attorney for the district of Massachusetts. If she gets the job, Suffolk County will lose one of its most prominent leaders on criminal justice reform. Governor Charlie Baker will decide her interim successor in the DA’s office, and he should pick someone who holds Rollins’s progressive values.

Rollins’s departure before her term ends in 2022 would be a loss to the city and could drain considerable energy out of the district’s criminal justice movement. She has delivered her prosecutorial priorities with bluntness and deep conviction, creating a courageous persona that only heightens the controversy around her. Her fundamental philosophy — that the justice system over-prosecutes and sends too many people, usually people of color, to prison — seems to be working. A recent study analyzing years of data in Suffolk County vindicated the approach, finding that not prosecuting low-level, nonviolent offenders was successful in helping them avoid the criminal justice system. Rollins understands that prison rarely rehabilitates anyone, and that incarceration has been abused in Suffolk County and beyond.

Consider the work Rollins’s office did on the Sean K. Ellis case. Ellis, who was the subject of the Netflix documentary “Trial 4,” and his lawyers claimed he was wrongfully convicted of the 1993 murder of a Boston police detective. Ellis spent two decades in jail, though the case was riddled with prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption. He was freed a few years ago, but he faced one remaining charge. In March, Rollins made a move that allowed that charge to be dropped, possibly clearing the way for Ellis to sue the city. Rollins’s filing included the first acknowledgement from the state that the case was corrupt.

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“I also think it’s important to lift up the work her office did with respect to the Arnie King case,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP in an interview. King was convicted by an all-white jury of first degree murder in 1972 and he was freed from prison after Rollins’s office agreed last fall to reduce his verdict to manslaughter. “These are tough, difficult cases but in the interest of justice [Rollins’s] office has been willing to take on what observers see as being controversial and some might say not in her best interest to pursue, but DA Rollins has never shied away from pursuing justice.”

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With a move to the US attorney’s office, Rollins would oversee more than 200 federal prosecutors and be the first Black woman to hold the role in Massachusetts. She would trade the autonomy and powers of the DA’s office, where she answers to the voters, for a more prestigious role where she answers to US Attorney General Merrick Garland.

As US attorney, Rollins would have oversight and investigatory powers over the entire state. She could make an impact on police accountability, launching investigations against the State Police and other law enforcement jurisdictions or probing hate crimes. But most high-profile cases — for instance, related to corruption, civil rights, or national security — require the Justice Department’s approval to pursue, according to those who have worked in the office. As US attorney, Rollins would be, as one former federal prosecutor put it, “in a job that can be very restrictive … without the freedom to voice an opinion on many things.” There may be fish she wants to fry that DOJ is not interested in.

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If Rollins is picked, she’d be working with the Biden administration’s priorities, not her own agenda. Consider the thorny topic of safe consumption sites where individuals can inject drugs under medical supervision and gain access to treatment for substance use disorder. Former Republican US attorney Andrew Lelling was against the policy, saying the sites were illegal, while Rollins has been vocal in her support of them. Yet it’s still unclear what the Biden administration’s position is on harm-reduction sites, which save lives. Would Rollins be willing to fight for them if Biden decides that the sites are a step too far?

If Rollins moves into the federal role, Baker will be under pressure to pick a person of color and someone who shares Rollins’s progressive outlook. His choice ought to be someone committed to Rollins’s progressive approach to criminal justice and the unfinished work she started.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.