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Is Suffolk County District Attorney Rollins right in her policy not to prosecute certain crimes?

Rahsaan HallBetsy Schneider


Rahsaan Hall

Brockton resident; racial justice director of the ACLU of Massachusetts

Declining to prosecute certain criminal offenses is not only within the purview and discretion of an elected district attorney, but it moves justice forward. For too long, prosecutors have been blindly allegiant to tough-on-crime policies – and that misplaced commitment has led to over-incarceration and gross racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

The ACLU recently analyzed the 15 offenses Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins indicated she would not prosecute. In our “Facts Over Fear” report, we looked at data from 2013 and 2014 in Suffolk County, and found that black people were disproportionately charged with these low-level offenses. We also found that Rollins’ predecessor dismissed 60 percent of these charges – which suggests they were not worthwhile prosecutions.


The system churns through people who suffer from mental health issues and substance use disorder, have experienced trauma, or are living in poverty. Racially biased policing and over-policing lead to black and Latinx people’s disproportionate representation in the system. Declining to prosecute these charges can reduce the overall number of people of color burdened by system involvement and can serve as a check on biased policing.

As a society, we are better served by investing in treatment, education, job training, and employment opportunities. When three-quarters of new sentences in Massachusettts are forpeople with prior convictions, it is clear that current approaches are not working. The so-called “deterrent effect” has failed as a model. For example, look at the opioid crisis. Despite officials claiming the opioid crisis is a public health issue, law enforcement still excessively pursues a criminal punishment approach. As a result, people released from custody who suffer from opioid use disorder are 120 times more likely to die from an opioid-related overdose than the rest of the adult population in Massachusetts.


Instead of pretending that the system is fair, unbiased, and just, we must be honest about the way it disproportionately impacts people of color and poor people’s lives. By diverting people out of the system, we reduce the footprint of law enforcement and criminal punishment – and we increase the opportunity to invest resources in addressing the intolerable conditions that lead to people’s involvement.

Scott Bushway


Scott Bushway

Retired Walpole deputy police chief; currently adjunct professor of criminal justice at MassBay Community College, Purdue University Global, and Hillsborough Community College

I commend Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins for her commitment and dedication to reforming our justice system. But proposing a “default” policy not to prosecute shoplifting, trespassing, receiving stolen property, drug possession and several other ‘minor crimes’ is not the way to do it.

Massachusetts currently has the lowest incarceration rate in the country. Incarceration levels reflect crime rates, and to some degree prosecution policies. It’s only logical that if District Attorney Rollins refuses to prosecute certain crimes it will diminish the effectiveness of the current crime control policy and crime rates will rise.

Police recognize there is a big leap between prosecution and incarceration, with many alternatives along the way. Despite the low incarceration rate in Massachusetts, we still incarcerate too many people. Diversionary programs, community service, suspended sentences, and pretrial probation should all be considered as alternatives to incarceration depending on prior criminal behavior and mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

But to suggest not even prosecuting certain offenses undermines the efforts of law enforcement and is contrary to a district attorney’s oath to discharge the duties of the office “agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Constitution and the laws of this Commonwealth.” Many of these so-called ‘minor offenses’ are important quality of life issues that are at the core of problem-oriented policing.


Reform and equality in criminal justice should begin by focusing on protecting the innocent - not by authorizing certain types of illegal conduct. Proper investigative practices are the foundation for any ethical prosecution. There are important areas to focus on - improving eyewitness identification methods and DNA testing procedures are just some of the strategies that can help improve the justice system.

In 1982, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson proposed a criminology theory called Broken Windows. The idea behind it was simple. If a rundown building had broken windows, it would be easy to break more. If left in disrepair, it would signal that there were no consequences to further vandalism and disorder. This theory has demonstrated that targeting minor crimes prevents more serious crime. If these ‘minor crimes’ are left unpunished, Suffolk County will not be safer under this policy.

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As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.