Maybe district attorneys in Massachusetts are utterly unassailable.
Year after year, they cruise to reelection without even a hint of an opponent: A whopping eight of the state’s 11 top prosecutors faced no one in their most recent elections. Most will run unopposed this year, too.
Suffolk DA Dan Conley hasn’t had an opponent since he first ran in 2002. Ditto DA Jonathan Blodgett, in Salem. There hasn’t been a contested DA race in the Berkshire, Bristol, or Middle districts since 2006; though Worcester’s Joseph Early Jr. has a challenger this year.
What gives? Are they all so brilliant at their jobs that nobody, including voters, believes someone else could do it better?
Not quite. It turns out voters don’t pay much attention to district attorneys. In fact, in a survey for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts last year, more than half of respondents said they believed individual DAs had a minor, or no, impact on how the justice system runs. Almost 40 percent didn’t even know chief prosecutors are elected.
That’s disturbing. Prosecutors have a massive say in how the system operates. They choose how hard to go after somebody and when to go easy. They decide the charges that are brought against those accused of crimes and what punishments to request of a judge. Many times, there’s no judge or jury involved at all: Nationally, over 90 percent of felony cases are dispatched via plea deals, and, in too many of those negotiations, district attorneys hold all of the cards, especially when defendants can’t afford a decent defense.
They also shape policy. Last year, nine Massachusetts prosecutors blasted a state Senate bill designed to reduce the number of people swept up into the criminal justice system. They opposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, which reformers on both sides of the aisle say are a relic of the failed war on drugs. They opposed raising the age at which people are charged with all but the most serious crimes from 18 to 19. And they pushed back against changing the law that makes having sex with anyone under 16 a criminal act so that consensual sex between teens close in age would no longer be prosecuted. They were often wrong, but their words carry great weight on Beacon Hill.
If you think the criminal justice system is too kind to those accused of crimes, or if you think it is unfair to people of color and the poor, then it matters deeply who your DA is. If you believe we’re sending too few people to prison, or too many, it matters who your DA is.
For example, Cape and Islands DA Michael O’Keefe seems pretty satisfied with the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts.
“There are places in the world where their penalties . . . are much more draconian than incarceration,” O’Keefe said at a legislative hearing in 2015. “For example. . . . They cut off the hands of people who deal drugs in certain parts of the world.”
If this logic pleases you, O’Keefe is your man. However, if you feel our standards should be higher than “at least we don’t sever appendages,” you might want to vote him out. Although you could be out of luck this year: So far, he hasn’t drawn an opponent.
Perhaps, if you live down that way, Plymouth DA Timothy Cruz is your perfect prosecutor. For that to be the case, you would have to be fine with the fact that Cruz declined to bring charges against the corrections officers involved in the death of a young schizophrenic man named Joshua Messier at Bridgewater State Hospital, a decision that was overruled by a special prosecutor. If not, you’re probably stuck with Cruz, since nobody has yet declared against him, either.
Even the best prosecutors ought to answer to somebody. To that end, the ACLU has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the state’s district attorneys, assess their effectiveness, and push voters to take a hard look at them this election year.
These 11 people have the power to change thousands of lives, for better and for worse. Isn’t it time we started paying closer attention to them?Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.