When Rachael Rollins was sworn in last week, she broke several barriers. She became the first female district attorney for Suffolk County. She became the first woman of color to become a DA in Massachusetts. And she also became part of a small but growing league of progressive DAs elected across the country who say they will take a new approach to the job.
This new approach to jurisprudence and the very notion of justice has put Rollins — and other progressive DAs — on the national stage. This small group, elected to counter the traditional "tough on crime," "law and order" culture of the past, believes that outdated and even racist criminal justice laws have led to unjust sentencing, crowded jail cells and disproportionate criminalization of blacks and Latinos. But as her profile has risen, Rollins has faced pushback, both locally and nationally, for the very views that catapulted her into office.
Rollins crushed her opponents in the primary and in the general election on the strength of a now well-publicized list of 15 low-level crimes that she said she would be reluctant to prosecute and prefers to look at on a case by case basis. She also pledged to decriminalize a number of offenses, including drug possession with intent to distribute.
“What I’m saying is, jail as a last resort,” Rollins said in a recent interview with Jim Braude on Greater Boston. “With respect to these 15 misdemeanors that are nonviolent, more quality-of-life crimes ... I believe we can hold people accountable without sending them to jail.”
In December, Rollins appeared on MSNBC with Al Sharpton, who explained to his television audience that Rollins' mission, from his point of view, is to “help law enforcement focus less on nonviolent crimes and more on violent crimes and solving homicides.”
Rollins went head to head with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson in September, who wanted to know why she would not “want to prosecute drug dealers in the middle of a drug crisis.” Rollins rejected that interpretation of her stated goals.
Rollins’ views have faced pushback on a local level, too. On her first day on the job, in what may have been an oversight, the name plaque of former DA Dan Conley had not been removed. She has also drawn rhetorical fire from the Boston Police Patrolman's Association about her list of 15, which a union official told reporters has consequences that would be dangerous to police. In December, the National Police Association, a recently-formed group that said it “combats the influence of anti-police activists,” filed an an ethics complaint against Rollins.
Rollins, a former U.S. prosecutor, has worked for years with law enforcement and has forged a friendly relationship with Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Suffolk Country Sheriff Steve Tompkins. Rollins said her relationship with police has been cordial, constructive and cooperative, but she has said that she is also willing to hold police accountable for errors and transgressions should they occur.
Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's DA — who is also known for his progressive stances on the criminal justice system — told WGBH News he is excited for Rollins to fill the role in Boston, and he expects her first year to be just as bumpy as his was.
“There is resistance because we are effective," Krasner told WGBH News. "There is an organized effort against us because what we’re doing matters."
Krasner is a lifelong civil rights lawyer who is known as the attorney for Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia. He has made a name for himself nationally and has ruffled a lot of feathers in the “City of Brotherly Love.” Krasner fired 31 assistant district attorneys a week after taking office last year and continues to endure criticism from the Fraternal Order of Police for refusing to prosecute drug addicts, work with a list of police officers tainted by corruption, or engage in traditional plea bargaining.
"We’re very excited that Rachael is the prosecutor in Boston, that we’ll have more members of the team — progressive prosecutors in major cities across the country who have a more balanced view of criminal justice,” Krasner said.
Rahsaan Hall, the director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he feels vindicated by the massive voter turnout in 2018 and the election of progressive district attorneys around the country. Hal created the slogan “What A Difference A DA Makes” to get voters excited about what for years had been a lowly position on the totem pole of elected offices.
Hall said he expects Rollins will overcome the pushback and make a name for herself in Suffolk County, throughout Massachusetts and nationally. He said the most transformative changes to the criminal justice system are taking place on the local level, and Rollins can lead those changes in Boston.
“An overwhelming number of people who are incarcerated are incarcerated in local prisons and jails,” Hall said. “And that's why it's so important that we have examples like this, where people got engaged, and saw and understood what a difference a DA could make, and voted for one that they believed would actually make a difference.”