With a population of 1.6 million, Middlesex County is larger than four New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island for those keeping score). Its district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer for 54 cities and towns — and as many police departments — and presides over a “law firm” of some 150 prosecutors.
And yet the post is so far “down ballot” that few even know it’s an elected position — and, sadly, even fewer care.
Donna Patalano wants to make them care — and she’s got a week left to do that before the Sept. 4 Democratic primary in which she is taking on incumbent DA Marian Ryan, who was initially appointed to the post in 2013 and then won election in 2014.
With no Republican in the November general election, this is winner take all.
Which explains why Patalano was door-to-door campaigning in Somerville on a day when the heat index topped 100 degrees. No one said it would be easy to make people care — it takes sweat and shoe leather and passion.
Passion she’s got.
“There are systemic problems in our courts. Different people are treated differently,” she said in an interview. “Until we have a district attorney who recognizes those racial and economic disparities, it’s not going to change.”
Patalano is no naïf in the world of criminal justice. She has been a prosecutor in Suffolk County, a member and then chair of the Board of Bar Overseers, a defense lawyer, and most recently chief of Suffolk County DA Dan Conley’s Professional Integrity and Ethics division, building the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
She is challenging Ryan from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — with a host of endorsements to prove it — but she is also hitting Ryan where she is most vulnerable — on the issues of staff turnover and transparency.
She cites an audit report that found experienced prosecutors in Middlesex (defined as three or more years of experience) left at the rate of anywhere from 11 percent to 17 percent a year during Ryan’s tenure.
“That’s twice the state average,” Patalano said. “There’s something going on in Middlesex County. And those losses have an impact on cases.
“Think about it from the victim’s perspective. By the time a case goes to trial, a victim may have to deal with three different prosecutors.
“Police complain too that prosecutors aren’t experienced enough,” she added. “And that’s a failure of leadership.”
Patalano often refers to the criminal justice system in Middlesex as a “black box” — with little data being released by Ryan’s office on pretrial incarceration or prosecutions vs. diversions to, say, drug recovery programs.
The Globe had its own transparency issue with Ryan back in 2014 when the paper had to file a freedom of information request for 19 pages Ryan failed to release (along with the table of contents so no one knew they were missing) from an investigative report she commissioned on the controversial Jared Remy case. (Remy had been released after his arrest for assaulting his live-in girlfriend and later returned to kill her.)
On the one hand, Patalano insists, “Make no mistake: we have a debtors’ prison in Middlesex County,” with cash bail being requested in cases where personal recognizance would do and in other cases, high bail requests are made “as a substitute for a dangerousness hearing.”
Such common sense on the latest hot button issue of bail may be a tough sell, but not on the politically savvy streets of Somerville, where Patalano has the support of seven aldermen. Ryan’s decision to punt the prosecution of a police misconduct case to the attorney general’s office has clearly caused some ill will there.
Sure, Democrats in this state squabble all the time. But this is the kind of year when incumbency means precious little and Patalano is counting on that — that and a lot of shoe leather.
Rachelle G. Cohen is a contributing columnist and member of the Boston Globe editorial board.