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New Suffolk district attorney says she will be ‘smart on crime’

Said new Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins: “I believe that we can hold people accountable without having to send them to jail.”
Said new Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins: “I believe that we can hold people accountable without having to send them to jail.”(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)

Suffolk County’s new top prosecutor sought to reassure residents and police that her approach to criminal justice won’t mean a district attorney’s office that is “soft on crime,” as she spoke Sunday morning on WCVB-TV’s weekly program “OTR: On the Record.”

Rachael Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who was elected Suffolk district attorney in November on a platform of criminal justice reform, told co-hosts Ed Harding and Janet Wu that she will work with police and prosecutors to modernize their approach to prosecutions.

“I believe that we can hold people accountable without having to send them to jail,” Rollins said. “I was very vocal, pre-primary, about the fact that I was going to look at crime differently than we had.”

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Rollins, who became the first black woman to serve as a Massachusetts district attorney when she was sworn in Jan. 2, was also set to appear Sunday afternoon at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury for a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was an assistant minister there in his youth.

In the televised interview, Rollins stressed that she believes former Suffolk district attorney Daniel F. Conley “did a very good job,” but pointed to technological and cultural changes that occurred during the 16 years he held that office.

“We’ve seen Uber, we’ve seen Airbnb completely disrupt industries . . . and we are still prosecuting things in the same way we have in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” she said. “And what we’re seeing nationally, is data show that our tough-on-crime sort of approach to things aren’t netting the same results as we thought they were.”

Rollins praised the state Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker for last year’s criminal justice reform law, but said it was “a really good first step; we have a lot more work to do.”

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Rollins said that, contrary to her critics who depict her as “soft on crime,” she is “smart on crime” and has no problem sending people to prison for violent crimes that harm their communities, “but I think we send people away for too long, and we don’t do enough with them when they’re gone.”

To shift the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation, Rollins told Harding and Wu, she plans to not seek jail time for first-time offenders accused of 15 “low-level, nonviolent crimes,” including trespassing, shoplifting, larceny under $250, drug possession, and even possession with the intent to distribute, a charge that she stressed is not tied to a particular weight of a substance and assumes an intention.

She said crimes on her list of 15 — which also include charges of resisting arrest unaccompanied by other criminal charges and of breaking into a vacant property while seeking shelter — are often associated with “poverty, mental illness and addiction, and what I think these people need is services, not sentences.”

Her goal, Rollins said, is to guide people toward treatment rather than spending $55,000 a year in taxpayer money to hold them in a jail or house of correction.

She also said some homicides prosecuted as first-degree murders would be more appropriately charged as second-degree murders or manslaughters, depending on the circumstances.

Rollins acknowledged “there are some police that are upset” about this approach to criminal justice, and she said some officers believe prosecutors should pursue jail time for charges of resisting arrest or possession of drugs with the intent to distribute them.

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Rollins said, though, that she has spoken to police leaders in Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop — the four communities in Suffolk County — and “we are going to get on the same page.

“We might not agree on everything,” she continued, “but what I want is transparency, and I want — whether you are in West Roxbury or Roxbury — for you to be receiving the exact same treatment when you walk in with an opioid issue or you walk in with a mental health issue.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.