Yvonne Abraham

DA candidates address an unusual constituency

The Suffolk County House of Correction in South Bay.
Boston Globe/File
The Suffolk County House of Correction in South Bay.

Celestino Vicente has been in pretrial detention at South Bay for five months. Held on gun and assault charges, he has been deemed too dangerous to be granted bail. It’s serious stuff that Vicente knows could cost him his freedom for a very long time. But he doesn’t want his alleged crime to define him.

“Everybody needs to be seen as a citizen first,” Vicente, 37, said.

On Tuesday morning, he will be.


That day, the six candidates who want to be the next Suffolk district attorney will appear at a forum at an unusual venue — the House of Correction on Bradston Street.

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And most of the questions they’ll be asked will come from the very men and women most directly affected by the way they would do their jobs — the inmates.

This is all kinds of wonderful. District attorneys, who decide whether and how to prosecute somebody, have massive power in the criminal justice system. It’s fitting that they should hear from the men and women whose lives they affect so deeply. And if the goal of corrections is, as it should be, to reintegrate inmates into their communities, treating them like real people, and potential voters, this is a pretty great signal to send.

“Most of the inmates feel excited and honored to be engaged in a process where they don’t often feel they have a voice,” said South Bay Superintendent Yolanda Smith.

That the candidates have agreed to this also says something good about where we are right now. Despite the regressive rhetoric in Washington, many states are reforming the way they prosecute and punish crime, acknowledging that tough-as-nails policies do little to improve public safety, are too expensive, and sweep a grotesquely disproportionate share of black and brown men into prisons (they make up 70 percent of South Bay’s 900 inmates).


Massachusetts, which has long lagged behind other states in such things, just passed a sweeping law that, among other reforms, would authorize district attorneys to divert people from criminal sanctions, narrow mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, better protect very young offenders from criminal prosecution, and make it less likely that people will land in jail just because they’re too poor to make bail.

It’s not everything, but it’s a great start.

The inmates at the debate will no doubt have ideas for more that can be done.

“These folks are the experts on what is contributing to them being in the system,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, which has been waging a national campaign to draw more scrutiny to district attorneys. “Rarely are their thoughts taken into consideration.”

Inmates and some of the service providers who work with them are expected to grill Democrats Shannon McAuliffe, Evandro Carvalho, Linda Champion, Greg Henning, and Rachael Rollins, and independent Michael Maloney about their plans to reduce racial disparities in jails and prisons; how they’ll keep former inmates from coming back; how they’ll approach bail; and how they’ll diversify their own offices, and hold police more accountable.


For his part, Vicente said, “I’m interested in what they think about what’s going on in the communities” and whether the candidates understand that “some good people [there] commit crimes out of necessity.” Others like him long to be seen as citizens, no matter what they’ve done. Though those with felony convictions can’t vote in the election, inmates convicted of misdemeanors can cast absentee ballots.

“This holds elected officials accountable,” said Andrea Cabral, the former prosecutor, Suffolk County sheriff, and public safety secretary who will moderate the debate. “And it gets [inmates] back into thinking about citizenship and the importance of [their] vote.”

That is where Vicente has arrived.

“It makes me feel relevant, like I have some type of say,” said the father of three. “It’s powerful . . . that we’re not being dismissed.

“The fact that they’re coming here,” he added, “shows a lot of courage.”

Courage and, perhaps, a willingness to make change.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.