You might think that reforms to how we handle criminal charges might be easy now that major portions of both political parties support them. Unhappily, your thinking thus would be wrong. A big battle has recently erupted, between the Governor and the District Attorney in charge of Boston. How did this happen at a place and time of general agreement ?
Last year the Massachusetts legislature enacted, and Governor Baker signed, a significant reform to our state’s handling of criminal justice. Little controversy attached to the effort. Aside from objections chiefly by Bristol County’s Sheriff Hodgson, the legislation was enacted by an overwhelming vote: 37 to 0 in the Senate and 148 to 5 in the House. The bill moved Massachusetts criminal law in the direction of treatment and away from incarceration; it did away with mandatory minimum sentences for addiction crimes. Consensus is the essence of Masslive’s report on the bill’s enactment, in this article from a year ago :
As the report makes clear, Governor Baker offered a few tweaks to the bill, all of them itemized in the report. He then filed his own bill in support of those tweaks. So far his bill has not been acted upon. What is now clear, however, is that the next step in reform will not be as easy as last year’s work. Baker has found himself embroiled in a fierce debate with Suffolk’s District attorney, Rachael Rollins, over her now notorious “list” of fifteen smallish crimes that she will not prosecute absent special circumstances and office support. The debate started when Baker’s Secretary of Public Safety, Thomas Turco III, sent Rollins a letter critiquing her list of non-prosecutions. Masslive wrote the following report, in which Turco is quoted objecting to several items in Rollins’s list of changes :
Turco’s letter raised other concerns, ones that I admit to not having noticed when Rollins published her “list” last year : especially her suggestion that the criminal histories of persons cannot be accessed beyond 36 months back. As Turco points out, this limitation would, if adhered to literally, block out some of the most serious offenders, as — so he notes — most of them would have been incarcerated for the past 36 months (and more), during which they would therefore have no criminal history for that time frame. It’s a fair criticism.
That said, Rollins’s response to the letter was not to publish a rebuttal but to attack the Governor on a personal, family level. Her attack generated both outrage and celebration, and wisely, I think, she and the Governor called for a “reset” — not that anyone out here was lulled by the call, yet it was still a wise public move. Said “reset” lasted only one day. Next morning, Rollins was calling out Democratic office holders who had not rallied to her side ( and there were plenty of these).
(My thinking is that her advisers got to her and said something like “you don’t want to cool this dispute off, you want to charge it up, it’s an opening for our side — the “progressives” — against the beacon Bill Democratic establishment. We tried that with the Safe Communities Act, but they wouldn’t take the bait, and Baker didn’t either; now we have another chance, on a less thorny issue, let’s go for it.” I can’t prove that something of this sort transpired, but why else would Baker and Rollins agree to a “reset,” only to see Rollins go back to attack mode just one day after ? The opportunity is there, as Baker wants the tweaks of rigor which I discussed above, while Rollins wants criminal justice to reform even further in the direction of alternative sentencing rather than conviction and incarceration.)
Rollins may well be right to want further reform; a case can certainly be made that conviction and incarceration have been too liberally applied to smallish crimes which more confident Western societies in the past often handled as matters of fine or money compensation. Nor can anyone dispute that our incarceration preference costs enormous amounts of money and subjects far too many people to the horrors of imprisonment. It’s hard enough for people to become imprisoned thereby subjecting their lives and bodies to the whims of some guards, without their having to suffer the risks of injury, rape, and even murder, that occur in almost every American prison. Our incarceration preference has also led us to create private prisons — a barbarity that should never, ever have been permitted, in any jurisdiction. For these reasons, as well as the job and housing deprivations that cripple anyone who has been incarcerated, I support the general purposes that Rollins is advancing.
I also suspect that Governor Baker agrees with her and that they differ only on the details of her plan. So why has the discussion between them taken such an adversarial turn ? I think we know the answer : Rollins is not only the Suffolk District Attorney. She’s a leader of an entire movement, by “progressives,” to take charge of Massachusetts’s public policy generally. The movement has some legs thanks to her election and that of Congresswoman Pressley — not to forget the defeat of House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez by a woman whom Rollins campaigned closely with — and Rollins is now using the opening that Secretary Turco’s letter gave her to force the Democratic establishment — whose views on most issues are very different from hers and the movement’s — to defend itself on an issue where alternatives to Rollins’s agenda are few and risk sounding racist, a card central to her reform justifications..
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere