The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Our prison population rate is six times higher than Canada’s and five times higher than England’s. Racial disparities are stark, and the cost of incarceration is huge — some $80 billion per year.
Clearly, something is amiss with our criminal justice system. But what to do?
For years, the public conversation has focused on improving police-community relations and softening harsh sentencing laws. And both are worthy endeavors. But for too long we have ignored the single most powerful actor in the system — the prosecutor.
Prosecutors have enormous discretion. If they accept a case, they must decide whether to file charges or seek an alternative resolution, like restitution or diversion to drug or mental health treatment. And national data show they’ve grown far more aggressive on that score, charging 2 in 3 arrestees where they used to charge just 1 in 3.
The charges prosecutors file also matter — some carrying far stiffer penalties than others. And at the start of the trial, they make life-altering decisions about whether to seek bail, knowing that a low-income defendant unable to come up with the cash may linger in jail for months, putting employment, housing, and their children’s well-being in jeopardy.
Massachusetts district attorneys argue they’re among the most enlightened in the country, pointing to the state’s relatively low incarceration rate. But that rate has tripled since the 1970s, even with crime at historic lows. And the state looks Draconian compared to the rest of the world. Massachusetts has a higher incarceration rate than Iran, Venezuela, Colombia, and just about every other nation on earth.
We can do better. That’s why next week’s Democratic primaries for district attorney in Suffolk and Middlesex counties are so important.
In Suffolk, primary voters will be selecting the likely replacement for District Attorney Dan Conley, who is retiring. Conley, it should be said, has done solid work, successfully prosecuting a number of high-profile cases and doing more to divert offenders out of the criminal justice system than some of his critics acknowledge.
And Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, up for reelection, may be the most progressive in the state. Earlier this year, she was one of just two district attorneys who declined to sign a DAs’ letter criticizing a sweeping criminal justice reform package that was ultimately passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Charlie Baker. And she’s done some important work on restorative justice, which involves putting an offender in a room with victims and working out an alternative to incarceration.
But prosecutors can be bolder. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner issued a remarkable memo weeks after taking office, instructing his staff to stop prosecuting sex workers with fewer than three previous prostitution convictions, to divert more cases out of the criminal justice system, and to publicly declare — and justify — the cost of incarcerating offenders. “These policies,” the memo began, “are an effort to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.”
In Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, state’s attorney Kim Foxx has pressed for bail reform and made an important commitment to transparency — issuing groundbreaking reports on the demographics of defendants and the disposition of their cases. Those sorts of data allow for an honest analysis of any racial disparities or differences in prosecution in the city and the surrounding suburbs.
So, how do the local candidates match up?
The presumed front-runner in the Suffolk County race, Greg Henning, has a bit of the reformer’s impulse. A longtime prosecutor in Conley’s office, he makes jailhouse visits to some of the young men he’s prosecuted. And he promises more transparency. But Henning, endorsed by the retiring district attorney and heavily funded by contributions from police officers, will not make fundamental changes to the office.
The four other candidates — former prosecutor Linda Champion, State Representative Evandro Carvalho, veteran public defender Shannon McAuliffe, and former MBTA general counsel Rachael Rollins — promise more substantial reform.
They’ve all got plenty to recommend them. Champion has overcome deep poverty and has a real understanding for the lives of many of those who wind up in court. Carvalho combines strong roots in the community with important ties to the Legislature. And McAuliffe offers an especially clear and compelling vision for the office.
But Rollins is the best choice. She has deep professional experience, working as a federal prosecutor and serving in leadership roles at the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. And her personal experience is meaningful. She has overcome breast cancer and, in addition to her own child, cares for the daughters of a sister with an opioid problem. A minor brush with the law as a college student — she was charged with receiving stolen property worth $250 or less — serves as a reminder, she says, of the stigma that comes with a criminal record.
Rollins is a dynamic leader who’ll be able to attract talent and push the office in new directions. She’s pledged to move away from cash bail for those who don’t pose a flight risk and to beef up restorative justice programs, among other things.
Rollins has also mobilized support from an impressive roster of liberal advocacy groups and politicians — no small thing in a race that threatens to split the reformist vote.
In Middlesex, the Globe endorses Ryan’s challenger, Donna Patalano, based on her impressive vision and breadth of experience. Once a prosecutor, she developed a deeper understanding for the criminal justice system, she says, when she became a defense attorney and worked on behalf of “people who don’t look like me.”
Patalano puts a heavy emphasis on data-driven leadership and transparency. And she’s made a strong commitment to building a more diverse prosecutor corps, promising to release demographic data on who gets job interviews with her office. She’s also pledged to address a worrisome pattern of turnover in the Middlesex district attorney’s office, creating the stability she’ll need to push through reform.
Together, progressive district attorneys in Middlesex and Suffolk counties could go a long way toward rethinking the role of prosecutor, setting new metrics for success, and putting Massachusetts where it belongs — on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform.