I have no interest in piling on my friend Rachael Rollins while she is down. Countless comments in the past couple of weeks explain how she royally and unnecessarily messed up while US attorney. Involving herself in the Suffolk district attorney’s race was harmful to herself and the causes she espoused. It also embarrassed her supporters and defenders and has provided fodder for anti-reformists and ambitious politicians.
However, it is worth pausing to reflect on the good things she did, especially as Suffolk district attorney, because there’s still work to do. Rollins wasn’t perfect, but she was well-suited for the moment when Americans nationwide began to challenge conventional assumptions about crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and racial disparities in the justice system.
Rollins had served as a federal prosecutor, but she had also known the criminal justice system from all sides, and she was willing to talk about it. In Chelsea and Dorchester, she owned every room and earned people’s trust. In Charlestown, when we started healing circles with youth and the police, her office was always represented.
She stepped inside jails and prisons to meet with incarcerated people, providing a sense of dignity and visibility to them. This was controversial to some, but to me and to others it filled a missing piece in the conversation of public safety — reform, rehabilitation, and second chances.
In full transparency, while I supported Rollins, I endorsed Kevin Hayden for district attorney when Rollins became the US attorney. He had more experience and was more qualified than his opponent. Hayden and I spoke at length about immigration, housing, and racism, and he showed me something his opponent did not have: humility and a willingness to learn and grow. He supported eviction-sealing and expanded service over sentencing while he was the interim district attorney. No, he wasn’t a great politician, but he was a family man with a good heart who was honest.
The profound sense of grief I and many people felt at learning of Rollins’s resignation was palpable. We lost a powerful ally. But some will jump to oversimplified conclusion: The system Rollins pushed against is all too eager to close in, and it is too easy for us to, in condemning recent actions, throw out a legacy of justice reform that must be preserved. Neither conclusion makes us safer.
So where do those of us who believe in reform go from here? How do we regain trust? How do we create a safer public safety system?
Asking these questions will give us focus: We will attend to the features of the justice system that drove us to fundamentally rethink public safety. We can both reform a corrupt system and hold people accountable.
Many of the challenges Rollins tried to tackle are ongoing; in some cases they are worse.
The opioid addiction crisis is still ripping apart families. Wrongfully convicted people are still sitting in jail. Racial disparities still drive horrific inequities in our prison system. The inability of returning citizens to find housing is delaying parole and leading to recidivism. There are many unsolved killings. There is much healing to be done.
Fortunately, we have a playbook for policies that heal communities and open pathways toward redemption and renewal. In her short term as DA, Rollins elevated smart, justice-oriented, and data-driven approaches into the national dialogue, thus saving lives, offering second chances, intervening before crimes occurred, and dismissing charges against an innocent incarcerated person. If there is any lesson that we should learn from this situation, it is that you cannot place the hopes and dreams of a movement on an individual’s shoulders. Inevitably, people make mistakes, pass away, change their minds. Messengers have flaws — we must look past them to the policies they advocate and measure those policies against ongoing challenges.
Rollins was unafraid to take tough stances, like filing a lawsuit with Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of state courts. When two Black Winthrop residents were gunned down in a hate crime, Rollins refocused a moment of chaos to one of healing. She personally came to the scene and made it a point to have a presence in Winthrop for weeks. She was able to compartmentalize the investigation of a hate crime, the heroic acts of law enforcement, the care for the victims, and the resources necessary for a traumatized community. This was beyond professional — this was personal. It was Rollins at her best.
Her policies worked. By declining to prosecute many minor offenses, arrests and more serious crimes declined. Suffolk County was both a safer and more just place.
The best thing we can do now is harness the excitement, energy, and new way of thinking Rollins helped to usher in and implement and expand the policies that worked. This approach is grounded in seeing the redeemable person, not just the crimes they perpetuated, and seeing that each of us who falls from grace can, with humility, apology, and accountability, rise.
Rollins was one of the first attorneys I met in Boston. She was a big sister, helping many Black women attorneys navigate an often hostile, exclusive legal community. Rollins was an anchor, a funny safe harbor, a person I knew would protect us. She was a commanding presence, born to lead.
I’m hopeful that she can, with humility, apology, and accountability, rise again.
State Senator Lydia Edwards represents the Third Suffolk District in the Massachusetts Legislature.