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Four vying for vacant D.A. seat

Former asst. U.S. attorney latest to join race to replace Dan Conley

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Four vying for vacant D.A. seat
(Photo: Rachael Rollins)

Rachael Rollins, a former assistant U.S. attorney and chief legal counsel at MassPort has entered the race for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, pledging to introduce reforms to the office while pursuing justice for victims of crime.

Rollins is the latest of four entrants in the race, joining former defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe, state Rep. Evandro Carvalho and prosecutor Greg Henning. Incumbent District Attorney Dan Conley, who is said to be backing Henning, is stepping down after 16 years in office.

In an interview with the Banner, Rollins said she is motivated to run by a desire to see positive change in the office of the county’s top prosecutor.

“I believe that with strong leadership and a commitment to social and restorative justice, the criminal justice system can be reformed without sacrificing the safety of the community, which is paramount,” she said.

The race for an open seat comes amid a push for criminal justice reform at the state level. Members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus have advanced bills calling for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, reforms to the cash bail system and other measures designed to make the system more fair for low-income defendants.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a national campaign, “What a Difference a DA Makes,” aimed at raising the profile of the often-overlooked races for the top prosecutor spot, highlighting the power the position has to effectively set criminal justice policy at the county level.

Police officers are the first level of criminal justice, charging defendants at the time of arrest. District attorneys build a case against a defendant, deciding whether to pursue or reject charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences, such as drug distribution in a school zone or possession with intent to distribute. How a defendant is charged often determines whether they receive jail time, or how much they receive.

Prosecutors have long favored mandatory minimum sentences, which give them the power to threaten defendants with long sentences. These threats often compel those with limited means to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Such plea deals enable prosecutors to tout higher conviction rates with less time spent trying cases before judges and juries.

Rollins said she’s looking to change the paradigm for prosecutors in Suffolk County.

“We’re thinking wins and losses,” she said. “[But] we shouldn’t be thinking on those terms. We have people’s lives in our hands, often at the worst point in their life. We have to look at how we can help people. We are the moral backbone of the criminal justice system.”

Rollins says many prosecutors view the communities in which they work solely through a lens of criminality, with little understanding of the lives of the defendants and victims who stand before them of who they advocate for.

“I’ve seen at the residents of Suffolk County as my neighbors, as the parents of children who played soccer and ran track with my daughter,” she says.

Rollins, who currently lives in Roxbury, grew up in Cambridge and owns a home in Medford. She has worked in Boston and currently serves as the chair of Legal Redress at the Boston Branch NAACP, providing advice and referrals to people seeking help with legal issues ranging from discrimination complaints to criminal charges. She has also served as president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association. Rollins graduated from Northeastern University’s School of Law and obtained a Master of Laws degree from Georgetown University Law Center and graduated from an intensive leadership program at Harvard Business School. She worked as counsel at Bingham McCutchen LLP for four years, beginning in 2002.

During that time, she served in a rotation at the Plymouth County district attorney’s office, trying cases as a prosecutor on loan from the firm. In 2007, she began a four-year stint as an assistant United States attorney, serving first under Michael Sullivan and later under Carmen Ortiz.

Rollins says this work gave her a perspective on the importance of the role prosecutors play in the criminal justice system.

“I saw just how important the charging decisions made by prosecutors were,” she said. “What’s important about the U.S. attorney’s job is that you have to know how to work on your feet, but you also have to be able to write very well. The vast majority of your pleadings are [written] motions.”

During the administration of former Gov. Deval Patrick, she served as general counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the MBTA and as chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The latter positions, she says, helped her hone critical crisis management skills.

“The district attorney’s seat requires crisis management experience in a work situation,” she said.

Rollins says she raised more than $24,000 in the first week after she announced her candidacy. Henning has $51,458, according to an Office of Campaign and Public Finance report that includes a $10,000 contribution he loaned to his own campaign. McAuliffe has raised $54,892, including $10,000 she loaned to her campaign. Carvalho raised $11,017 in the first two weeks of March, adding to $24,259 already in his campaign account.

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