Just when it seemed everyone was open to new ideas about criminal justice, after last year’s reform bill, Thomas Turco, the state secretary of public safety and security, rehashed old tropes, and worse, old politics in blasting Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s prosecution plans. Turco’s broadside was released to the press without notice to the new DA; Rollins’s reply was swift, attacking Governor Charlie Baker for authorizing it. The reported rapprochement between the two officials, while admirable, shouldn’t obscure some of the larger issues the dust-up reveals.
Rollins’s policies, Turco insists, upset the balance of the criminal justice bill, between reducing “unintended long-term consequences” of imprisonment, and the government’s responsibility to ensure public safety. The latter, Turco says, Rollins seemed to “categorically” dismiss.
Categorically dismiss? The only one “categorically” dismissing public safety concerns was Turco, not Rollins. Rollins’s policies were drafted after consulting leading experts and analyzing data. They are subject to continuing review. They parallel programs in jurisdictions across the country that have had positive effects. Their rationale is straightforward — to assure that prosecutorial resources are allocated where they make the most sense: violent crime and serious drug traffickers.
Most of all, Rollins’s plan addresses issues that Turco has “categorically dismissed” — racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Police charged trespass, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct against people of color three time as often as whites. Blacks were charged with driving offenses four times as often as whites. And every conviction, no matter how petty, has serious consequences, impairing a defendant’s access to education, jobs, and housing.
If Turco wants to look critically at the state of the Massachusetts criminal justice system, there are better places to start. Take mandatory minimum sentences, which this administration supports, even though they have little or no impact on recidivism or promoting public safety. Or consider life without parole: Massachusetts ranks fifth in the country in the rate of prisoners serving life and virtual life. The result is an aging prison population imprisoned at great cost, past their proclivity — event their physical ability – to commit crimes. Massachusetts leads all in sentencing disparities between Hispanics and whites and ranks among the highest in black/white sentencing disparity. Given this history, Turco should urge the governor to reevaluate his commutation and clemency policies. In the four years the governor has been in office, he has granted none.
No, Turco set his sights on a new DA, four months in office, trying out a thoughtful plan and yes, an African-American woman. The governor was right to apologize for Turco, but that’s only the start.
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, is a professor at Harvard Law School.