Suffolk County D.A. candidates spar at Jamaica Plain forum
The gloves came off Monday as five candidates for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office participated in a forum at English High School hosted by JP Progressives, the NAACP Boston Branch and other groups.
State Rep. Evandro Carvalho, attorney Linda Champion, assistant district attorney Greg Henning, former defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe and attorney Rachael Rollins agreed on many major issues and sparred on others, all trying to differentiate themselves in a race that comes on the heels of a sweeping criminal justice reform package that may change the way prosecutors do their jobs.
Carvalho stressed his prior experience as a prosecutor and his work pushing criminal justice reform legislation.
“I saw families cycling through the criminal justice system,” he said. “I ran for state representative to change the system. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last four years.”
Champion, the latest entrant in the race, cited her experience as the daughter of an immigrant and her work in the nonprofit sector.
Henning spoke about his work in the District Attorney’s office heading up the gang unit, as well as his volunteer work and a two-year stint as a teacher in a local charter school.
McAuliffe, who entered the race before incumbent Dan Conley announced his departure from the seat, spoke about her commitment to reforming the county’s criminal justice system.
“It’s cost us billions of dollars and made us less safe,” she said, criticizing the District Attorney’s office for perpetuating a system that rewards prosecutors for racking up convictions.
Rollins said she would focus on implementing the criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature this year.
“If you don’t have a district attorney who can implement all the changes into that office, which has 240 people, it will all be for naught,” she said.
Asked what qualified them to serve as district attorney, candidates cited their experience — four of them as prosecutors.
Carvalho cited his work in the Roxbury and West Roxbury district courts and in the county’s gun court.
Champion cited her work managing programs in the nonprofit sector.
Henning said he gained managerial experience heading the gang unit, one of the largest in the Suffolk County office.
McAuliffe cited her work leading the Boston office of Roca, a group that works with gang-involved youths.
Rollins hit at McAuliffe and Henning, stating that the gang unit had a staff of 15 and Roca, a staff of 17. She contrasted their experiences with hers as general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Asked whether she thought suspects are ever coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, Rollins said prosecutors overcharge defendants as a matter of course.
“As prosecutors, we overcharge them with crimes,” she said. “We leverage these charges to put our hands around their throats then make them take a plea bargain.”
She said she would end the practice of overcharging suspects.
Asked whether he supports the criminal justice reform bill, Henning said he does, although WGBH correspondent David Bernstein reported last week that his campaign said he opposed aspects of the bill.
“If I were a legislator, I would support this bill and vote for it,” Henning said Monday, citing support for the removal of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders, and provisions to allow youthful offenders to have their criminal records expunged.
But McAuliffe said the legislation didn’t go far enough, citing the Legislature’s refusal to pass the Justice Reform Act, which would have directed the savings from lower incarceration rates to re-entry programs that help ex-offenders find jobs.
“In Massachusetts, we spend about $90,000 on re-entry services,” she said. “Other states spend hundreds of millions on it.”
She also opposes mandatory minimums for people convicted of selling opioids.
“We’ve been down this road before,” she said. “It doesn’t work.”
Carvalho stressed his role as a lead sponsor of the criminal justice reform legislation.
“I’m the only candidate up here who has been working to fix this broken system that everyone’s talking about,” he said, noting that he is putting in a bill to increase funding for re-entry services to $5 million.
“I’m the one that’s about reform,” he said. “All they can talk about is what I’ve been doing for the last four years.”
Carvalho’s remarks drew fire from the other four candidates.
Champion appeared to take a swipe at Carvalho: “Passionate up here, huh, Evandro?”
Henning said he would let his record speak for itself. McAuliffe said she has fought on the front lines against the excesses of the criminal justice system as a criminal defense attorney. Rollins cited state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s work on criminal justice reform and cited her own work on criminal justice reform as chairwoman of the NAACP Boston Branch’s Legal Redress Committee.
Candidates were asked what steps they would take to address racial disparities prosecution, sentencing and incarceration in Massachusetts, which sees incarceration rates eight times higher for blacks than for whites.
Henning said he would use pre-trial diversion programs to reduce incarceration rates, but did not appear to directly address racial disparities.
McAuliffe said she would work to increase diversity in the DA’s office, implement meaningful implicit bias training, shift the culture away from a “scorecard” mentality that rewards prosecutors for the number of convictions they make to practicing fairness in prosecutions and “collect data to meaningfully address systemic racism that’s playing out in the courtrooms every single day.”
Like McAuliffe, Rollins noted the lack of people of color in the criminal justice system.
“We have prosecutors who don’t look like the people they’re prosecuting. We have police officers who don’t look like the people they’re policing. And we need to do better,” she said.
“We don’t need studies,” she added. “Walk outside. Look at police officers. Look at all the people holding signs for certain people on this panel. They don’t look like the people that we’re prosecuting.”
Henning leads the field in funding, with $96,533 in his campaign account. His connections as a prosecutor appear to have helped him raise an impressive $58,378 in the last two weeks, with $17,100 of that sum donated by police officers.
McAuliffe, who has been fundraising since February, has a balance of $83,447, $33,963 of which were raised in the last two weeks of March.
Carvalho reported a $59,360 balance in his account, with $31,250 raised in the last two weeks of March. He began the month with a $24,259 balance, much of that carried over from his legislative campaign account.
Rollins, who has $27,708 in her account, raised all but $1,092 of that sum in the last two weeks of March, receiving much of it from attorneys.
Champion, the latest entrant in the race, lists just $3,800 in her account.