Four years ago, voters on opposite ends of Massachusetts vaulted into office two district attorneys vowing sweeping changes to traditional tough-on-crime thinking, from no longer prosecuting a range of nonviolent offenses to scaling back requests for cash bail.
The approach of Rachael Rollins in Boston and Andrea Harrington in the Berkshires — designed, they say, to create a fairer criminal justice system built less on incarceration — faced both heavy resistance and, by some measures, garnered validation. Now that prosecutorial progressivism faces a new threshold question: Do residents want more of it?
Massachusetts voters will elect at least three new county prosecutors this year, including a successor to Rollins and replacements for two 20-year incumbents. A former ACLU leader is exploring running against the state’s longest-serving district attorney in a county that includes New England’s only Black-majority city. Harrington, should she seek reelection, is guaranteed a challenger, offering a test of the progressive policies she’s instituted.
The contests have the potential to push district attorney’s races, long considered down-ballot afterthoughts, to the political forefront. The burst in attention is owed, in part, to the wave of calls for criminal justice reform and the growing movement to help realize them by electing candidates with bold, liberal platforms for offices historically led by more traditional prosecutors.
Critics say the push could backfire and ultimately undercut public safety, arguing veteran incumbents in Massachusetts have already sought ways to steer first-time or young offenders from jail without the far-reaching changes Rollins and others have embraced.
It’s effectively supercharged the debate around not just whom voters could choose in November, but how justice is best served in local courthouses.
“Boston and Suffolk County has been a really good pilot,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. The ACLU doesn’t endorse candidates, but it’s planning to expand a program it launched in 2017, spotlighting district attorney’s races, to more counties this year. “We’re going to see even more people stepping up and saying, ‘We are trying something new.’”
Not all are convinced more voters are hungry for such a shift. Longtime prosecutors and legal observers say an expansion in Massachusetts would require a sea change — and an unlikely one, they argue — in largely suburban communities that have long embraced more traditional district attorneys, some of whom rarely are challenged at the ballot.
Michael O’Keefe and Jonathan Blodgett, the five-term district attorneys on Cape Cod and the North Shore, respectively, each said earlier this month that they won’t seek new four-year terms this year. But it’s still unclear whether a progressive candidate in the mold of Rollins will emerge in either district, where voters tend to embrace more moderate politicians for a range of offices.
In Essex County, the first candidate to announce a campaign was state Representative Paul F. Tucker, a Salem Democrat and former police chief in the city who praised Blodgett’s work in diverting defendants, particularly juvenile offenders, from the criminal justice system. Tucker said in an interview he would not embrace the non-prosecution of certain types of crimes or the broad elimination of cash bail requests.
“The job of the prosecutor is not to just put people in jail,” Tucker said. But, he said, he believes voters appreciate prosecutors who use “sound discretion.”
Competitive or open races for district attorney have often been the exception in Massachusetts. Blodgett, for example, ran unopposed every election after first winning the seat in 2002. Four years ago, there were just two open seats, each won by Rollins and Harrington. In 2014, there was one.
Rollins, who was sworn in last Monday to be US attorney for Massachusetts, will be replaced for at least the next year by Kevin Hayden, a former assistant district attorney tapped for the role by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican. Daniel F. Conley, Rollins’s predecessor, told the Globe he expects Hayden to operate as a more “traditional prosecutor,” and those who know him believe he could win a full term to the seat should he seek it.
This year’s slate of races is still forming, and with Attorney General Maura Healey weighing a gubernatorial campaign, it remains to be seen whether an open race for her office draws interest from a sitting district attorney. Some also question whether an ideological litmus test will even determine winners in November.
“I think it comes down to a decision over [a candidate’s] personality type and their experience,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “I don’t think there is this overwhelming desire to turn more district attorneys progressive through [the DA’s] work.”
Races around the country, however, have become increasingly defined by it. Rollins was considered at the vanguard of a movement here when she won a competitive Democratic primary in 2018. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, stopped asking for cash bail in a variety of cases among a slate of other changes, before easily winning reelection last year.
Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s newly elected district attorney, told prosecutors days after he took office that they should seek jail or prison time only for murder, sexual assault, and other serious offenses.
It also hasn’t been limited to major cities. Harrington, a former state Senate candidate, had never prosecuted a case before she won the 2018 district attorney’s race in Berkshire County, a 129,000-person district. Harrington has not said whether she’ll run again this year, but she said there’s a heightened focus, and a “different kind of pressure,” on her compared to her predecessors.
“I need to show results. I need to show data. I need to show people what I’ve been doing,” she said. “I think in the past people have been satisfied that the DA and law enforcement, ‘They’re handling things.’ There wasn’t a lot that the community was digging into and wanted to know. That’s different [now].”
There’s also been an intense pushback, including from attorneys who bristled at her push to hold more defendants ahead of trial on the argument they’re too dangerous to release. Critics see a law enforcement role that has become too politicized.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to be progressive in your thoughts and how you deal with things. But when it’s at the cost of the safety of the community that you’re obligated to ensure, I’m not so sure that it works,” said Robert Sullivan, a defense attorney who launched a campaign for Berkshire district attorney as an independent.
“I’m not naïve to the fact that the DA has to be elected. There’s some politics involved,” he said. “I just don’t think the day-to-day operations of a DA should be political.”
It’s not limited to Western Massachusetts. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, who was elected district attorney on promises to cut prison and jail populations, is now facing a recall election amid criticisms he’s been too lenient. Rollins herself weathered a contentious process to become US attorney. Republican opposition to her nomination forced the Senate to hold its first roll call vote to confirm a US attorney since 1975.
“People are ultimately going to get fed up with it if they’re not fed up with it now,” O’Keefe, a Republican and the Cape and Islands’ district attorney, said of the more progressive approach to prosecutions. “The pendulum will begin to swing back.”
He cited rising crime rates in several major cities, saying it could test voters’ patience. But in Boston, defenders say there’s widespread evidence Rollins’s way of doing business has worked.
A first-of-its-kind study conducted in Suffolk County by a team of academic researchers found that not prosecuting low-level crimes was more successful in directing nonviolent offenders away from the criminal justice system over two decades. Violent crime also dipped last year, and the number of homicides in Boston dropped to 40 last year — 20 percent below the five-year average.
“The language that [Rollins] used in that role, that pushed back against the traditional notions of law enforcement and required us to take a different look at the role of law enforcement, really resonated with a lot of people,” said Rahsaan Hall, the former director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Hall is now exploring a run against Timothy Cruz, Plymouth County’s 20-year incumbent Republican district attorney who beat back Democratic challengers in 2010 and 2018.
“There is certainly an appetite for more progressive prosecutors,” Hall said.