Governor Charlie Baker’s top public safety official on Thursday sharply criticized the criminal justice overhaul planned by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, saying it could undercut efforts to curb the ongoing opioid crisis and put some crime victims at risk.
Massachusetts Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas A. Turco III took aim at Rollins’s proposals to not prosecute certain drug possession crimes and relatively minor crimes, and her approach to pretrial release conditions such as GPS monitoring and orders to stay away from individuals or areas.
Rollins, who was elected last fall, outlined the proposals in a sweeping, 65-page memo last week. Her office has said the memo details ways to minimize the impact of the criminal justice system and reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities.
Turco praised Rollins’s “efforts to think differently’’ about criminal justice, but said that “several of the policies announced in the memo would, if implemented as proposed, put at risk the Commonwealth’s ongoing efforts to combat the ongoing crisis of the opioid epidemic and substantially restrict government’s ability to protect victims threatened with serious crimes.”
In her memo, Rollins outlines a bundle of policy initiatives. For instance, Rollins said her office would reassess cash bail in some ongoing cases, review pending Suffolk County appellate cases, and employ plea negotiations that emphasize diversion, not incarceration, among other ideas.
In a Thursday statement, Rollins said she was elected to “represent the interests of people who voted overwhelmingly for the bold changes I’ve made.”
She said she welcomed Turco’s viewpoint.
“I’m excited that the Secretary shares my commitment to addressing and preventing the violent crime that overwhelmingly affects Black and Brown people in Suffolk County,” said Rollins. “My prosecutors distinguish between petty offenses and serious criminal conduct every single day, and I’d be happy to address his hypothetical concerns with some of our real world experience anytime he wants to pick up the phone.”
Turco’s letter marks an uncommon clash between the Baker administration and a district attorney. It also comes months after Baker filed a pretrial bail reform bill that would broaden the state’s laws on pretrial detention for those who pose an immediate danger.
Last week’s memo came after Rollins made waves nationally during her campaign when she pledged to reduce prison sentences and stop prosecuting 15 crimes, including trespassing, shoplifting, and drug possession, an approach that ruffled some law enforcement officials. In the memo, Rollins referenced that strategy.
Turco, in his Thursday letter, was troubled by several specific policies in the memo, including a rule that would limit a review of a defendant’s criminal history to three years. Turco said in his letter that such a policy would “mean that some of the offenders with the worst criminal histories will regularly be treated as first-time offenders.”
Rollins in the memo had indicated that prosecutors dealing with any one of the 15 crimes featured on the do-not-prosecute list would consider prior offenses within the previous three years. Prosecutors wishing to consider prior offenses older than three years would need to seek supervisor approval, according to the memo.
Turco also was concerned about a “rule declining to prosecute dealers of heroin, fentanyl and other illegal drugs who are charged with possession with intent to distribute, so long as the amount the defendant is caught with on a particular occasion is below a threshold representing hundreds of dollars of heroin or fentanyl.”
He was concerned that such a rule could interfere with statewide efforts aimed at busting opioid drug rings. He said the proposed rule would also require police to wait until the drugs are actually distributed “often to individuals with substance use disorders,” before they could be assured that the dealers would face criminal prosecution.
In the memo, Rollins outlined her plans to address the substance abuse crisis, saying she would strongly consider supervised consumption sites, safe needle exchange and cleanup programs, and widespread availability of drug test strips and of the life-saving drug Naloxone.
“Arrest and incarceration are not effective solutions for substance use disorders,” she said in the memo.
Turco also had problems with another directive that does not seek “stay away orders or electronic monitoring for people who commit dangerous offenses unless there is a threat to a specific person or property.”
Such a rule, he said, does not account for those charged with crimes against children being ordered to stay away from children or playgrounds. Nor does it account for “gang members armed with unlawful weapons” being ordered to stay away from a rival’s turf.
Turco also disliked a rule declining to prosecute possession of “20, 30, or even 40 pounds” of marijuana as a crime of possession with intent to distribute. Such a proposal comes as the state is trying to eliminate black market marijuana sales in favor a regulated and transparent market, he said.
He feared another directive would undermine drunk driving laws in the state.
Turco is not the first public official to voice concern about Rollins’s memo. The document drew a sharp rebuke from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with one ICE official calling her approach “counterproductive and very misguided.”
The memo said that if a member of her 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.”
The memo touched on other policies, including cash bail. Her office’s official policy regarding cash bail and pretrial release will be “presumptive recommendation of release on personal recognizance without conditions,” according to the document.
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 reassess their situations through such a framework.
Plea negotiations, she said, will be driven by overarching principles that include incarceration as a last resort. Diversion should be offered “whenever possible,” the memo said.