When assessing Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s performance over her first six months in office, some stipulations are in order.
First, she is doing exactly what she promised voters she’d do, which is not prosecute 15 specific “low-level” offenses and take addiction, mental health, and other mitigating characteristics of perpetrators into account when deciding whether to prosecute and what kind of punishment to seek.
Second, it’s not a big sample, and it’s early days.
All that stipulated, my colleagues, Andrea Estes and Shelley Murphy, found that while Rollins has made good on her pledge to not prosecute people for certain crimes, it has come at a price for others.
They found that, beyond Rollins’s determination to cut poor defendants and people of color some slack, there is the cold, hard reality of victims feeling badly let down and the distinct possibility that some people who are getting breaks either don’t deserve them or might be better served by Rollins not going so easy on them.
They also found it’s not just “low-level” offenses that are getting broomed.
A man who caused a brain injury to a female lawyer he attacked in Charlestown avoided jail time when he was allowed to plead to lesser charges because, Rollins said, he had mental health issues and no prior record. The victim, still being treated for her injuries, is justifiably furious.
A Chelsea man driving without a license when he collided with another car had his charges dismissed, even though an 11-year-old passenger had to go to the hospital.
Some judges who didn’t want to be quoted by name share some of the concerns raised by the Globe’s reporting.
Most significantly, they said, when Rollins drops charges against someone before arraignment, she precludes the ability of the court to order drug or mental health treatment.
Some will tell you compulsory drug and mental health treatment doesn’t work. But it does work for some, and some former addicts swear the best thing that ever happened to them was getting locked up and launched on court-ordered treatment.
Some judges also said that in some cases, the DA’s leniency has had a Kafkaesque effect, in which a defendant who committed an offense while driving without a license or insurance fared better than someone properly licensed and insured.
Rollins betrayed a patch of thin skin when she complained to Shelley Murphy that she is being subjected to far more scrutiny than her male predecessors and noted that judges don’t have the democratic mandate she has.
As the first woman to serve as Suffolk DA, and as a black woman, Rollins has indeed faced more scrutiny. Some social media attacks on her are blatantly racist and misogynistic.
But it is also true that none of her predecessors — Dan Conley, Ralph Martin, or Newman Flanagan — rode into office on such a radical platform, stressing not who they would lock up but who they wouldn’t. So, in fairness, she’s invited extra scrutiny.
As for her complaint that unelected judges have no business criticizing her, be careful what you wish for, counselor. An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of democracy, and if Massachusetts judges were elected, there would be more pandering populists out there, making life for Rollins more difficult.
Some of Rollins’s policies let people get away with offenses, leaving no record that can be used to hold them accountable if they reoffend. Her claim that as DA she represents not just the victim but the perpetrator, meanwhile, threatens to upset the balance of the justice system. The defense bar makes no similar claim on behalf of the victims of crime.
Still, Rollins is smart, a refreshingly candid if relatively inexperienced politician. Whatever faults Estes and Murphy found, Rollins can make adjustments and remain true to her pledge — an admirable one — to declutter the system and make it more fair.
Estes and Murphy didn’t do a hit piece, as some have complained. They did the DA a favor.