Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden believes in criminal justice reform and public safety. He also believes that experience matters.
Those are sensible beliefs — except for those in the ultra-progressive wing of the criminal justice reform world, where Hayden’s view of the DA’s job was called out by Mayor Michelle Wu as “code and signal for upholding the status quo.” With that, Wu, who is backing Hayden’s opponent, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, joins the campaign to paint Hayden as an old-school, too-tough-on-crime prosecutor who only wants to throw bad guys in jail — a policy that disproportionately affects people of color.
It goes against everything Hayden said he stands for. As a Black man, Hayden told me, he knows what it’s like to be pulled over “and out of my car for reasons that I didn’t think were necessary.” As the father of two teenage boys, he has also talked to them about what to do when that happens. His father, Robert C. Hayden, who died last January, was a noted authority on Black history, and other relatives were deeply involved in civil rights.
“The issue of race, racism, civil rights, equality, it’s steeped in my family. It’s in our blood. It’s part of what we breathe and think about all the time,” Hayden said. “So, the notion that I’m going to turn the clock back, the notion that criminal legal reform doesn’t matter to me, that I’m going back to traditional prosecution, nothing could be further from the truth, and my career bears that out.”
But that notion is what he has to fight if he’s going to beat Arroyo, a onetime public defender. Hayden’s reform credentials came under scrutiny after he was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to fill the job Rachael Rollins left behind when she became US attorney and he declined to embrace the list of low-level offenses that Rollins said she would not prosecute. Instead, he said he would look at each case as it comes in. Meanwhile, every program Rollins put in place is still operating, according to a spokesman for Hayden’s office. Yet Hayden’s tone is different from the “defund the police” wing of the reform movement. “I do not believe that criminal legal reform and public safety are mutually exclusive. They’re not. That’s a lie from the pit of hell. One cannot and should not have to give way to the other,” he said.
Hayden, 54, grew up in Newton and now lives in Roslindale. He’s a graduate of Dartmouth College and Boston University School of Law. After being hired back in the 1990s by Ralph Martin, the first Black district attorney not only in Suffolk County but in New England, Hayden served 11 years in the DA’s office, where he led the Safe Neighborhood Initiative, a groundbreaking violence-prevention program. He’s also a seasoned criminal defense lawyer and, since 2015, has served as chairman of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board.
A lifelong Democrat, Hayden acknowledges his appointment by Baker contributes to some confusion about his political identity — something Martin, who was appointed to the DA’s job by Republican Governor Bill Weld, relates to. But Weld, said Martin, didn’t expect him to share every aspect of his ideology, and the same is true of Baker.
“The reason why Bill Weld picked me wasn’t one dimensional and the reason why Charlie Baker picked Hayden wasn’t one dimensional either,” said Martin, who recently retired as general counsel at Northeastern University and now works for the Prince Lobel law firm. Martin also strongly refuted Wu’s critique of Hayden: “If the mayor is saying Kevin would be some sort of retro appointment, that’s completely wrong. He has a very broad and interactive approach to using the resources of that office.”
Today, Hayden is trying to strike the balance he believes in — ensuring public safety and fighting for criminal justice reform. His office is launching a “restorative justice pilot program,” which will bring victims, offenders, and community members together to create a case resolution to traditional court sentencing. He’s also releasing findings on deadly force encounters by police in Suffolk County dating back to 2017.
Hayden told me his interest in the legal system goes back to high school days, when “the war on drugs was on in full and a tough-on-crime strategy was firmly in place. I was watching it unfold on the news all the time, young Black men either being shot, murdered, critically injured, placed in wheelchairs, dying — or in the alternative, going to jail. That really tugged at me.” He said he remembers telling his mother that what he wanted to do with his life was go to law school and eventually “try to make a difference.”
Now, he must convince voters that his definition of making a difference is one they should believe in too.