Blind eye to injustice is not fitting in a district attorney
In “The true role of the district attorney” (Opinion, May 28), Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe exposes the racist underbelly of some persistent prosecutorial attitudes in Massachusetts. It is disheartening to learn that there are high-ranking prosecutors in the Commonwealth who turn a blind eye to the criminal justice system’s undeniably disparate impact on communities of color. Without mentioning newly elected Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins by name, O’Keefe mischaracterizes her approach, while exposing the thinly veiled racist undertones of his argument.
Since taking office in January, Rollins has undertaken to decriminalize specified minor offenses, such as trespassing and drug possession, which historically have been applied inequitably against people of color. O’Keefe’s reference to exempting “groups of people” rather than categories of crimes is not just inaccurate — it’s telling.
In O’Keefe’s view, the criminal justice system writ large plays no role in the disparate rate of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of black and Latino men. He chalks up this disparity to the “disintegration of the family,” “lack of respect for discipline in education,” and “the glorification in some communities of a culture that celebrates disrespectful language and misogyny under the guise of art.” While O’Keefe meticulously avoids any explicit reference to race, his message is all too clear.
What is unclear is whether O’Keefe is unaware of, or just chooses to ignore, the expansive research and legal scholarship currently fueling criminal justice reform. When O’Keefe argues that the criminal justice system is merely a mechanism that “deals with those who are brought to it,” he ignores the reality behind the critical and highly subjective police and prosecutorial decision-making process.
As a white man, O’Keefe probably has had the privilege of never having experienced the criminal justice system as a mechanism of oppression. However, as the head prosecutor in a large Massachusetts jurisdiction, he has a responsibility to educate himself about the inequities created and reinforced by the system.
The writer is a former public defender and is currently a teaching professor at Northeastern University School of Law.
Tough-on-crime approach is outmoded and destructive
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe should spend less time peddling specious accusations about the people and organizations committed to making our communities safer, more just, and racially equitable, and spend more time studying the years of criminal legal system data that have proved his tough-on-crime prosecutorial philosophy to be outmoded, destructive, racist, and fiscally irresponsible.
Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, offering drug treatment in lieu of incarceration, and declining to prosecute low-level offenses are all the safest, most just ways to improve public safety. It’s sad that O’Keefe would deny that, when his own community has benefited from some of these policies.
However, it’s no surprise O’Keefe would take such an absurd, retrograde position. He’s the same elected official who once made the outlandish suggestion that nations with lower crime and incarceration rates have achieved such success through execution and dismemberment.
Racial justice program
American Civil Liberties
Mass. does itself no good abandoning a law-and-order approach
Michael D. O’Keefe deserves thanks for writing clearly and eloquently some things other veterans of the criminal justice system have only been grumbling about among ourselves.
In the 1960’s and ’70s, well-intentioned criminal justice reforms led to increased crime rates. The angry public response then demanded “law and order” in the form of mandatory and longer sentences. With its incarceration rate the lowest in the nation, Massachusetts does not need to restart that cycle.
The Globe deserves gratitude too for running the piece. Let the discussion continue.
Brian R. Merrick
The writer was a Massachusetts district court judge for 25 years.
DA makes a narrow, self-defeating case
Michael D. O’Keefe’s critical assessment of the “social justice district attorney” articulates an overly narrow and self-defeating vision of the role of prosecutors. Prosecutors may indeed have little control over whom the police haul in front of them for most offenses, but that is not to say that prosecutors have no influence over whether that individual is likely to appear in front of them again.
As I learned while serving as an assistant district attorney in Essex County, mechanically pursuing each individual offense without an eye to how prosecution affects a potential defendant — or to the societal factors that helped give rise to the offense in the first place — simply ensures that prosecutors end up having to convict the same individuals time and again. District attorneys who attempt to break this cycle or, better yet, short-circuit it before it even begins, are acknowledging an underappreciated truth: The best prosecutors are the ones who can think about more than just prosecution.
Senior fellow for
criminal justice and
civil liberties policy
R Street Institute
Rollins is working on building a new, truly just system
District Attorney O’Keefe’s comments are an assault on the communities he targets. To account for disparities of incarceration, he uses pejorative and coded language that harks back to the days of the 1965 Moynihan Report, which blamed black mothers for a “ghetto culture,” encouraged criminalization of black people, and ushered in a shift from national and state policy to eradicate poverty to one that caused decades-long expansion of the targeting of black communities by police, judges, prosecutors, prisons, and probation and parole.
As a resident of Roxbury, and being from a family that has resided there for five generations, I voted for Rachael Rollins for Suffolk DA to begin the work of building a new system, based not on racism, coded language, and fearmongering, but on solutions led by those residents most directly affected, and with the goal of meaningful and effective change toward true justice. That should be the true role of the district attorney.
The writer is executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.