There are few positions as powerful and as central to the notion of what justice can and should mean in Massachusetts as that of US attorney — the chief federal prosecutor in the state — a post about to be assumed by Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
It is far more than the mere bully pulpit at the disposal of most elected officials. The power to prosecute — whether to fight political corruption or to right the wrongs of official indifference so egregious it rises to the level of negligence — is a power unlike any other.
No need to take our word for it, just ask any of the three former speakers of the Massachusetts House who ran afoul of federal law or the dozens of state troopers charged in a wide-ranging overtime abuse scandal about the power that comes with the post. Even celebrities like Lori Loughlin, indicted in the so-called Varsity Blues college admissions scam, are all too familiar with the many legal tools in the toolbox of the US attorney.
Rachael Rollins has spent the last three years showing how the criminal justice system can be used both to keep the public safe and to right some longstanding wrongs.
“Every policy and initiative that I have put in place as Suffolk County district attorney has been designed to improve the safety and well-being of the communities I serve, to improve the public’s trust in law enforcement and our courts, and to improve the fairness and equity of the criminal legal system,” she said in a statement issued upon her confirmation.
And as she assumes her new post, there is much work to be done to take that mandate to another level.
▪ More than a year ago, the US attorney’s office found “reasonable cause to believe” that the Massachusetts Department of Correction “fails to provide constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis; fails to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners in mental health crisis; and violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis by using prolonged mental health watch under restrictive housing conditions.” A settlement of the case was reportedly in progress. None has been announced yet. It now falls to Rollins, who should insist on a court-ordered monitor as part of any long-term settlement.
▪ Also at DOC, allegations of excessive use of force by correction officers are the subject of a civil suit filed in federal court — a suit that certainly could spur a grand jury investigation. If Rollins sees herself as someone whose job it is to give a voice to the voiceless, this would be a good place to start.
▪ The deaths of dozens of aged veterans during the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has been the subject of at least three investigations but with little justice meted out to those responsible — other than the firing of its two top leaders. Attorney General Maura Healey tried but failed to bring the two men to trial on criminal charges, but a superior court judge ruled the state law on elder abuse was never meant to apply to nursing home administrators. The US attorney’s office and the Justice Department’s civil rights division launched an investigation in April 2020. As recently as last September, federal investigators were reported to be on the scene. Rollins must certainly put this on her “unfinished business” list.
There is no more important part of the job of US attorney than the ongoing fight against public corruption — something that a series of Supreme Court decisions has made ever more difficult to pursue. But that’s not to say Rollins shouldn’t be on the lookout for those who abuse the public trust and the taxpayers’ dollars. Are those recent indictments of Boston police for abusing overtime the end of the story — or part of a larger problem?
And in the area of old business — in fact, more than a decade old — is the 2010 consent decree entered into by the Boston Public Schools with the Justice Department and the US Department of Education to remedy the department’s failure to provide adequate instruction for students with limited English skills. Today there is evidence that those students are once again falling between the cracks. What is the point of a consent decree if it is not subject to continued monitoring?
Yes, the portfolio of possibilities that could — and should — occupy the attention of the next US attorney for Massachusetts is a wide-ranging one. Rollins has the chance to bring her social justice bona fides and her prosecutorial skills to a new level and to that wide array of issues. And the people of this state will be depending on her to do just that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.