Two weeks ago, Rachael Rollins won the Democratic primary for District Attorney of Suffolk County, an outcome hailed by progressives nationwide. But she hardly had time to enjoy her success before critics emerged, expressing concern about her intention to decline to charge people with a range of petty crimes. WGBH's Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with WGBH legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed about Rollins’ victory, her vision for the job, and this criticism. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: First of all, were you surprised by this, that Rollins won the Democratic nomination?
Daniel Medwed: I was. Like a lot of folks, I assumed that Greg Henning had a leg up. He was the heir-apparent anointed by the departing DA, Dan Conley. He had the support of the police unions, and I thought that the other four candidates would basically split the progressive vote and allow Henning to sail through. But boy, was I wrong. A lot of people are hailing Rollins's victory, in part as a part of this blue wave across the nation that's brought many women and people of color into elected office. But I think that sells her short a little bit. She's smart, savvy, sophisticated, a great lawyer with extensive managerial experience who ran a terrific campaign. And she has a compelling backstory, including a family member who suffered from drug addiction.
Mathieu: She's got a good story to tell. So what is it about her win here that has provoked a negative reaction in some circles? We've heard people on Fox News talking about her.
Medwed: I think it relates to a campaign promise, or really a statement of policy preferences, in which she indicated that if she were DA, she would use her power to decline to prosecute 15 low-level nonviolent offenses, ranging from trespass to shoplifting to certain drug possession charges.
What that means is that even if the police make an arrest for one of those crimes, her office would refuse to take those charges to court. Now, a lot of scholars think that the declination power held by prosecutors is the next frontier of criminal justice reform. It's really hard to get legislatures to repeal ill-advised statutes, to take them off the books. It's really hard to get the police to stop making arrests for those laws that are actually still on the books. But if you have a prosecutor who is declining to charge them, that can go a long way toward advancing justice, cutting back on mass incarceration. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the police unions and some business leaders have expressed some uneasiness with her policies.
Mathieu: We're talking with WGBH News legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed about Rachael Rollins, the Democratic nominee for Suffolk County DA. You mentioned uneasiness on the part of the police and retailers too. Tell me more about that. What are the actual objections to her proposed charging policies?
Medwed: I think the objections boil down to what's known as a deterrence argument — that it's the threat of criminal prosecution that dissuades people from engaging in criminal activity, and that if people knew that you could trespass or shoplift in the city of Boston with impunity, it would just embolden people to engage in that behavior.
The argument would also suggest that there would be financial consequences, retailers would lose revenue because of shoplifting, and that maybe this could be a slippery slope, a gateway to more serious crimes.
Mathieu: So put your opinion hat on here. Were the criticisms legit?
Medwed: I hear them, I see them, but I don't think they're especially legitimate. I think Rachael Rollins should be applauded for trying to do something different, for trying to address the trap of a criminal conviction that ensnares so many young people in Boston, especially young men of color. Even if you get probation, typically, for one of these offenses, it's very easy to violate the terms of your probation. Maybe you miss an appointment with your officer or a phone call and then you're sent to jail.
Also, the collateral consequences of a criminal record are enormous. You'll have difficulty finding employment. You might be ineligible for certain forms of public housing, in some states you can't even vote. Plus, Rollins has indicated that this isn't a tablet set in stone, this list of 15 offenses, she's willing to talk to the police, talk to business leaders. And I'm pretty confident that she'll tweak her proposals accordingly, if she's convinced that she should do so. I'm really excited about the prospect of having Rachael Rollins, potentially, as our DA.