Five candidates vying to become Suffolk County’s district attorney faced off Thursday in a debate that focused on a range of criminal justice reform measures, from incarceration rates to mandatory minimum sentences to the bail system.
More than 450 people packed into Hibernian Hall in Roxbury for the two-hour debate, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The Democratic candidates — Rachael Rollins, Greg Henning, Shannon McAuliffe, Linda Champion, and Evandro Carvalho — jousted over policy and priorities while touting their progressive views.
The crowded field emerged after Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley announced in February he would not seek reelection after 16 years as the top state prosecutor for Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.
A sixth candidate, Michael Maloney, is running as an independent.
District attorney races have taken on new prominence in recent years amid a national conversation on criminal justice, and groups like the ACLU are working to promote the campaigns as central to reform efforts.
The debate opened with WGBH journalist Callie Crossley asking candidates about their qualifications and their positions on various criminal justice issues.
Rollins, a former prosecutor who was legal counsel for Massport and the MBTA, said her record as a prosecutor matched her progressive campaign platform.
“I’m trying to run so that I can make policies for this state that are consistent with what the Legislature and the voters would say,” she said. “With respect to my progressive record, I’ve sued the police for race discrimination, I have sued the state on behalf of veterans, I have put sexual predators in jail.”
Henning, a Suffolk assistant district attorney, was asked about his record as a prosecutor and whether he had used tactics to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses, such as threatening to report parents to the Department of Children and Family Services or issuing subpoenas.
Henning said he had never threatened witnesses with the removal of their children but said there are times he has used subpoenas to bring witnesses to the stand.
“In those very limited circumstances where there’s a risk to public safety, where a repeat offender can bring harm to the community . . . there’s times where we need to do it, and it’s to protect public safety,” he said.
Crossley asked McAuliffe, a former public defender and the director of Roca, a group that works with at-risk youth, to address criticism that the nonprofit has failed to listen to feedback from black and Latino community groups. McAuliffe spoke about the racial backgrounds of the staff she oversaw at her organization and gave specific targets for diverse hiring if she is elected to office.
“I believe and understand in equality and also equity and everyone being at the table, and that’s what I would do at the DA’s office,” she said. “I believe that the DA’s office should be an office that mirrors the community it serves, with at least 40 percent diversity.”
Champion, a former Suffolk prosecutor who now works as assistant general counsel for the state’s Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund, said that while juveniles should be prosecuted differently than adults, young offenders who have turned 18 should face the same consequences as older adults.
“I will prosecute anyone over the age of 18 because they are an adult,” she said. “They have the right to vote, they have the right to go to war, they have the right to participate in making decisions.”
She emphasized her work on bail reform and advocated for programs to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
Carvalho, a state representative and former Suffolk prosecutor, said he was well qualified to manage the office’s staff of more than 100 lawyers.
“When I was ADA in West Roxbury, I had managing skills; I trained and mentored young ADAs in the office. I’ve been a state representative for four years, and I’ve managed my office at the State House,” Carvalho said. “What we do for our own is about values. It’s about leadership, it’s about bringing people together to improve our communities. That’s what this is about.”
Maloney, a defense attorney, said he was invited to the debate but did not attend because he was litigating a case in Fall River.
“My full commitment is to my client, but I’m looking forward to meeting the other candidates in person,” Maloney said Friday.
The primary will be held in September.