Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins has drawn the ire of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement after releasing a detailed policy memo that declared her commitment to ensuring people can attend court hearings “without fear of, or interference from, civil immigration authorities.”
The 65-page memo stated that if a member of Rollins’s staff sees federal immigration authorities, including officers from ICE or the Department of Homeland Security, either apprehending or questioning people who are due to appear in court about their residency status in or near the “public areas of any Suffolk County courthouse,” they are to report it to her, her first assistant, or her general counsel.
Rollins also said Suffolk prosecutors will begin to factor “into all charging and sentencing decisions the potential of immigration consequences.”
“All persons who are harmed, regardless of national origin, must receive full, equal, unfettered access to justice,” stated the memo, which was released on Monday. “Local criminal matters always supersede federal civil matters, and this office is committed to making sure all parties with civil or criminal business before our courts in Suffolk County can arrive to and from each and every one of their court hearings without fear of, or interference from, civil immigration authorities.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Todd M. Lyons, ICE’s acting field office director for enforcement and removal operations in Boston.
“Attempts to promote an overall fear or suspicion of law enforcement officers is a counterproductive and very misguided approach to criminal justice,” he said in a statement. “As with other members of law enforcement who work in Suffolk County, the men and women of ICE have a specific mission they are sworn to uphold and they perform that mission with great integrity and honor.”
“One would hope the District Attorney would focus her attention more on allegations of those accused of criminal activity than on the men and women of law enforcement who courageously protect our communities every day,” he added.
Rollins took office in January after being elected in November on a criminal justice reform platform. In a statement, her office said that the policy memo outlines ways to minimize the impact of the criminal justice system and reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities. The document also contained guidelines for handling some of the most common, less serious offenses that Suffolk prosecutors deal with.
“We start with a presumption that, in most cases, these charges don’t need to be prosecuted,” Rollins said in the statement. “Dismissal, diversion, treatment, and services are much more often the appropriate outcomes.”
Rollins made waves during her campaign when she pledged to reduce prison sentences and stop prosecuting 15 crimes, including trespassing, shoplifiting, and drug possession, an approach that angered some law enforcement officials. In the memo, she referenced that strategy.
“In addition to being low-level, non-violent offenses with minimal long-term impact, they are most commonly driven by poverty, substance use disorder, mental health issues, trauma histories, housing or food insecurity, and other social problems rather than malicious intent,” the memo stated.
Incarceration “if appropriate, will only be recommended when any other recommendation would compromise the safety of an individual and/or the community,” the memo stated.
Her office’s official policy regarding cash bail and pre-trial release will be “presumptive recommendation of release on personal recognizance without conditions,” according to the memo.
“This presumption will only be rebutted if there is clear evidence of a flight risk,” she said.
Rollins also said her office would create a list of people who are currently being held on cash bail of $25,000 or less and re-assess their situation through such a framework.
Rollins outlined her plans to address the substance abuse crisis, saying she would strongly consider supervised consumption sites, safe needle exchange and cleanup programs, widespread availability of drug test strips, and the availability of the life-saving drug Naloxone. Such efforts “are proven to save lives, reduce needle litter, and improve access to treatment and recovery,” she said.
“Arrest and incarceration are not effective solutions for substance use disorders,” she said in the memo.
Plea negotiations, she said, will be driven by overarching principles that include incarceration as a last resort. Diversion should be offered “whenever possible,” and addiction, poverty, mental illness “and the behaviors that often result from them, should never serve as a justification for incarceration.”
Rollins also indicated that she will conduct a full review of all pending appeals in the county.
“Appellate cases can, and often do, have a greater impact on the legal system beyond the ‘one’ case,’” she said. “The courts’ decisions become ‘case law’ and create the precedent that dictates how criminal laws are applied going forward.”