District attorney races across the country have often been sleepy affairs, pitting establishment law and order campaigners against one another. But in recent years, criminal justice reformers are running for this office more than ever. That's according to a Harvard Law School study and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
This comes in the aftermath of questionable police shootings around the country, from Michael Brown in Ferguson to 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, where DA’s failed to indict police officers accused of killing unarmed black men and women.
Locally, the case of slain teenager DJ Henry of Easton, Mass. ran up against the same roadblock when the Westchester County DA failed to indict the officer involved in his slaying even though evidence in a civil case pointed to “extreme negligence” at the least for the fatal shooting.
“No one in the public should have any confidence that district attorneys can fairly investigate the police departments,” said attorney Michael Sussman, at the time representing Henry’s family. After these tragedies, civil rights and legal organizations suddenly began paying more attention to the office of district attorney. Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, is leading a campaign to convey the significance of this elected position to voters.
“We are committed to educating the public around the importance of electing a district attorney candidate who is going to significantly transform what the district attorney's office is about," Hall said. "That is one of the most powerful individuals in the criminal legal system that nobody knows about or is really talking about.”
The ACLU campaign titled “What a Difference a DA Makes” seems to be working in Suffolk and ten other counties in Massachusetts, where DA races have picked up steam. The ACLU is hoping to motivate voters who never before paid attention to the office of district attorney to show up to the polls and vote.
An ACLU-commissioned poll initially suggested an uphill battle, Hall said. “We found four in ten Massachusetts voters did not know that the district attorney was an elected position.”
But ginning up interest in the Suffolk County DA’s race, at least, has been easier than organizers had anticipated. At a candidates’ forum at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury this June, hundreds showed up. Large numbers also turned out for debates in Jamaica Plain and in downtown Boston.
The six announced candidates — Evandro Carvalho, Linda Champion, Greg Henning, Michael Maloney, Shannon McAuliffe and Rachel Rollins — also debated before an audience of men and women who have more at stake than most in deciding who will lead that office.
Guy, an inmate at Suffolk County House of Corrections who didn't want to give his full name, told WGBH why he was serving time there. “Selling drugs trying to support my lifestyle. I have another six months to go. I been in a year now,” he said.
And for Guy, this race is consequential.
“A DA makes a big difference. To me personally, it’s someone who can identify with where I come from. Of course, you have to be held accountable for some crimes that are committed, but sometimes things are very egregious, and we get the short end of the stick,” he said.
The questions from this audience to the six candidates sitting before them in a jailhouse setting were all deeply personal. A visibly nervous inmate named Chante Graham asked, “I know that some of you are current or former assistant district attorneys, so this question is for you. Why is there such pressure by the commonwealth to take plea bargains rather than go to trial?
The answers varied, but all began with the same legal approach: criminal justice reform.
Carvalho said, “The criminal justice system and law enforcement community as a whole for the past three, four decades have been about locking people up.”
“We're leveraging you. And it's not right,” said Rollins.
Said Maloney, “You know 500 dollars bail might as well be a million bucks. They can't post it.”
McAuliffe agreed and added, “That's what the system is set up for. It's set up to stack up the odds against defendants at every single pressure point.”
Said Henning, “The justice reform bill helped to change the way that bail is going to be reviewed.”
“It's up to the defendant to assert their rights, and if they feel that they're truly innocent they need to move it to a trial,” said Champion.
The change in interest this year is obvious, especially compared to campaigns of the past. In the last major open district attorney race 16 years ago, Dan Conley easily brushed off challengers.
All the current candidates, except one, is a Democrat. Four are former or current assistant DA’s. All see themselves as progressives as measured against Conley. But Conley’s own legal philosophy and history are a far cry from conservative DA’s in many parts of the country.
“And if I may ... I’ll just simply say I'm very proud of my record,” said Conley. “The policies that were put in place have contributed to steep declines in arrests and incarceration. You know the House of Correction in South Bay is 40 percent empty today. And the narrative that's out there is that mass incarceration exists on a grand scale. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
But many voters in the age of “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” are looking for more than a decline in incarceration rates. They want to change what’s punishable, like drug possession or selling homemade loose CDs or cigarettes on street corners, for example, that have led to arrests and police shootings in other parts of the country.
And for many, that more "progressive" approach to criminal justice is symbolized by the polices of a man who does not even live in Massachusetts.
Last year Larry Krasner won the DA’s race in Philadelphia and has become the model for many nationwide of what a DA should represent. The former attorney for Black Lives Matter activists purged his office of more than 30 assistant DA’s whom he believed were not committed to fairness. Krasner’s influence is apparent in the race for Suffolk County DA, echoed in the comments of Rollins, Maloney and McAuliffe.
“Larry is absolutely a model for what the DA can be. And I will be speaking with him this week about what it is that he's done in Philadelphia to change the system,” said Rollins.
Maloney told WGBH, “If you look at what he’s already done, he’s having an influence on the state, and it's enormous.”
McAuliffe said of Krasner, “He is my inspiration for running and really showing that what we need is a different lens, a different perspective, and if we wanted to, we're going to have a fundamentally different type of prosecutor.”
Henning, an assistant district attorney in charge of the gang unit, is seen as the more traditional law and order type candidate and is why, ironically, many see him as the front-runner, appealing to a more conservative base in communities like West Roxbury and Roslindale and potentially canceling out the votes of Rollins, Carvalho, and McAuliffe, whose views are similar on many issues.
Rollins and McAulliffe have won loud cheers at the most liberal forums. Carvalho has pointed out the fact that he lives in African American and Cape Verdean communities most impacted by crime and the legal responses to it.
Henning stands out on the issue of ending all civil forfeiture cases in which property can be wrested from accused individuals. Champion, a former assistant district attorney, takes a hard line on violent youth offenders. Maloney, a self-described independent, may be the wild card and has attracted support from drug legalization advocates.
However voters choose, election officials and the ACLU believe there will be more of them casting ballots in this fall’s district attorney races in Suffolk and elsewhere around the state. Some will be first-time voters like Guy, the inmate at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, who plans to vote absentee from jail.
“I never knew I could have voted for a DA. I only found out about this a few days ago, and I was just told that I could vote locally and federally. So, it’s a big difference for me,” he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Henning is an assistant district attorney in charge of the gang unit, not McAuliffe.