She’s become the face of the social justice movement in Massachusetts, a champion for rehabilitation over incarceration and for accountability in policing. Less than three years after Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins first made waves with the progressive platform that propelled her into office, her work has positioned her to become the next US attorney for the district of Massachusetts, the state’s top federal law enforcement post.
The potential promotion could be an extension of her work, a larger stage for Rollins to advance her reforms and broaden the footprint of the progressive movement.
But some worry that joining the federal office would necessarily limit her freedom of action and mute her activism — and create a vacuum in criminal justice reform efforts at the local level. It is Governor Charlie Baker’s call on who would succeed her, making it at least an uncertainty whether the next district attorney will follow Rollins’s path. Much is at stake in this possible transition.
“She’s made some progress, and has done some remarkable things, but she hasn’t quite had time to complete her agenda,” said Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor who has advocated for some of the same reforms that Rollins has enacted and argued for.
“She’d be leaving big shoes to fill,” he said.
Rollins’s appointment is not guaranteed, though she is said to be in the final stages of a federal vetting process. If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, she would join a Department of Justice led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has prioritized civil rights enforcement, police reform, addressing domestic terrorism, including white supremacy, and combating gun violence — all causes that Rollins has similarly embraced.
Three years ago, Rollins was a political newcomer — she had briefly worked as a federal prosecutor, mostly in the civil division, and later as general counsel for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority. Then in 2018, she became the first Black woman elected as Suffolk district attorney and pledged not to prosecute 15 low-level crimes, ranging from shoplifting to resisting arrest and possession with intent to distribute drugs.
At her inauguration, Senator Edward Markey, who gets to make recommendations for the state’s federal prosecutor, called her a “warrior for justice” and a leader who would “help lead a revolution.”
“Rachael recognizes that our current justice system faces a reckoning,” Markey said at the time.
Her efforts triggered from the outset blowback from some judges, police officials, and prosecutors. But in the years since, her message has begun to resonate. In March, an independent review published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the practice of not prosecuting low-level crimes in Suffolk County was successful in directing nonviolent offenders away from the criminal justice system; defendants whose misdemeanor charges were dropped before arraignment were 58 percent less likely to return to the criminal justice system for a subsequent offense within the next two years, and were more likely to avoid charges for any serious violent crimes, than if prosecutors had continued to press minor charges.
Only 24 percent returned to court for another offense within two years, compared with 57 percent of defendants whose misdemeanor charges were fully prosecuted.
Rollins saw the data as validation of her reforms.
And over the last two years, she’s taken other actions to carry out her pledge: She’s been proactive in dismissing cases tied to the drug-testing scandals at two state-run drug labs and commissioned a summit to craft a response to the management “malfeasance” at the state Hinton Lab. She’s proven to be willing to dismiss charges in high-profile cases in which the integrity of the original prosecution was in question, including the dismissal of gun charges in the case of Sean Ellis, who was recently released from prison after a murder conviction tainted by police corruption close to three decades ago
Her hard-charging reforms have often put her at odds with police commanders and other district attorneys in the state, as well as public safety officials in Baker’s administration, who argue that their work should be enforcing laws, not as social justice advocates. They argued that Rollins’s approach would only embolden criminal offenders. In each dispute, and often in blunt terms, she defers to the mandate for reform that Suffolk County voters demanded when they elected her to office.
Advocates for reform see this as a pivotal moment to effect change, amid a historic, national reckoning over police abuses that intensified following last year’s killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Last month, police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, for kneeling on his neck for more than 9 minutes. Last week, federal authorities charged him and three other officers with civil rights violations related to Floyd’s death.
Rollins’s election was seen as part of a movement of reform-minded prosecutors in Massachusetts and across the country, calling for greater accountability in policing and more alternatives to incarceration. Police reform has dominated discussions on Beacon Hill and will play a central role in Boston’s mayoral race.
A spokesman for Rollins would not comment for this article, but has said the district attorney recognized she is being considered for the US attorney’s post, and called it “an incredible honor to even be in the running for the position.”
Andrea Cabral, a former state secretary of public safety and sheriff in Suffolk County, said Rollins has used the pulpit of the district attorney’s office to reform from the inside, as voters have recognized that the work of a county prosecutor “is where the rubber meets the road.” That work, and open discussion of reform, will be more restricted in the “institution” of the Department of Justice, she said, where US attorneys are appointed by the president and where the agenda is mostly set in Washington, D.C.
“As an elected [prosecutor], there’s more freedom to take risk, to say what you want to say, and you take a position on an issue,” she said. “The only people you answer to are the voters.”
As US attorney, Rollins would still have some say in setting the state’s agenda for enforcing federal laws. Her predecessor, Andrew Lelling, followed the doctrine of the Trump administration and focused heavily on immigration fraud cases and the prosecution of street gangs and drug traffickers. But Lelling also made his own headlines and brought high-profile white collar cases, such as the Varsity Blues prosecution of parents who bought their children’s acceptance into top universities, as well as the indictment of former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, who is currently on trial for corruption.
Lelling also prosecuted corruption within the State Police, and he brought the only federal civil rights case under the Trump administration against a police agency, when he issued a report finding systemic abuses in the Springfield Police Department. One of the other reported finalists for the US attorney post, Jennifer Serafyn, currently head of the civil rights unit in the US attorney’s office, drove the Springfield investigation. The other finalist is Deepika Bains Shukla, who heads the US attorney’s office in Springfield.
Robert Fisher, of Nixon Peabody and a former federal prosecutor who briefly worked with Rollins in the US attorney’s office, said she knows the inner workings of the office and the limitations she may face.
“You can definitely put your imprint on [the work], you can tailor your policies to where you are, but you’re not fully in charge as the US attorney,” he said. “There’s still the attorney general, the president, the bureaucrats in Washington. The buck doesn’t necessarily end with you.”
Fisher said, though, that Rollins has been able to use her position to make her social justice policies key talking points in criminal justice reform, and she will be able to make those talking points part of the federal discussion as well.
“I think she’s done a lot to put it on the front pages of the news, for people to talk about it and consider it,” he said. “I think it’s bigger than any one person, but she’s done all she could do to lend her voice to it, with her platform.”
Fisher also worked as a state prosecutor with Daniel Mulhern, who is Rollins’s first assistant, and her handpicked recommendation as her successor if she gets the federal job. Though Baker has the authority to name an interim district attorney until the 2022 election, Rollins has privately advocated for Mulhern, and noted in a recent Twitter exchange that previous district attorneys who left office have been able to name their successor.
Fisher said that Mulhern has experience as a trial prosecutor and also in community and social justice work, and he has close ties to local and State Police that will help him bridge law enforcement with Rollins’s more progressive policies.
“It’s going to be tough for someone to recreate Rachael Rollins. You have to bring your own vision to it,” he said. “He’ll tailor the vision to how he sees it, he knows how to do the job. He knows the community needs. But as long as Rachael’s policies are working, he’ll keep them.’'
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who works closely with Rollins and was elected with a similar platform of social justice, supported Rollins’s nomination to the federal post in a January letter to Markey and Senator Elizabeth Warren, saying Rollins has a “spine of steel” to carry out their shared vision. She said that the reform movement has taken hold in Massachusetts and that Rollins can carry on the message to federal level.
“It’s a position where she can have a major positive influence on reform, policing, reforming prosecutions here in the Commonwealth but also at the federal level,” she said. “To have a voice like Rachael’s in the Department of Justice – there’s no bigger opportunity for criminal justice reform than that right there.”
She envisions Rollins enforcing federal law to target civil rights cases and white supremacy extremism and terrorism, police corruption and abuses, and the drug trade – focusing more on supply than demand.
If Rollins is appointed, she urged Baker to appoint a successor “who will pick up the mantle Rachael Rollins left, and the message to voters and promises she made before she was elected.”
“This is part of a movement; it’s not just about one election. And you can see this happening in communities across the country,” she said. “It’s not an anomaly, or a one-off, it’s part of a moment and her legacy will continue.”