DA candidates get specific on policy during debate
In the five-way race for the Suffolk County district attorney office, candidates made their case for election at a public debate last week hosted by the “What a Difference a DA Makes” campaign, a voter education campaign launched by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Former defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe, state Rep. Evandro Carvalho, attorney Rachael Rollins, assistant district attorney Greg Henning and attorney Linda Champion answered specific policy questions while each emphasizing their own experiences and progressive work.
The event took place at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury with around 300 people in attendance and the debate was moderated by WGBH journalist Callie Crossley.
Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU Massachusetts, addressed the audience.
“The DA is one of the most powerful people in our criminal legal system. The DA chooses whether or not to charge someone with a crime and which crimes to prosecute,” she said. “That’s extraordinary power and for too long our criminal legal system has been broken, plagued by mass incarceration, gross racial bias, little transparency and little accountability.”
With questions prepared by the campaign’s community partners, the candidates had the burden of proving the impact they would have on communities of color and whether or not they would work to reform the criminal justice system.
Carvalho, who grew up in Dorchester and worked as a prosecutor at Roxbury District Court spoke about his experience working in the system. “I know the difference between a criminal and someone who needs a second chance,” he said.
As state representative, he was one of the lead sponsors of a recent criminal justice reform bill that passed in the State House.
McAuliffe, former head of Roca Boston, a social services program for high-risk young adults, said the county does not need an experienced prosecutor like outgoing DA Dan Conley, but “a leader that knows how to get the job done and has gotten it done.” She said Roca utilized a “smart scientific approach to reduce crime and recidivism.”
Henning, in some ways, might represent the status quo as someone currently working at the district attorney’s office, but at the debate he emphasized his experience working outside the system.
“The work I have done has taken me to the classroom, the courtroom, jail cells and gymnasiums while trying to keep people safe on the street and not entering the criminal justice system if we can prevent it,” he said.
In her opening statement, Rollins said, “We deserve a criminal justice system where somebody from Mission Hill gets the exact same treatment as someone from Beacon Hill.”
She said addressing the decriminalization of mental illness, addiction and poverty would be her focus as the next district attorney.
Champion maintained a big-picture focus on the current criminal justice system and the root causes of crime. “I joined the race because I’m tired of sitting back and watching us prosecute people instead of prosecuting the conditions that exist in our society that are causing people to commit crimes. The number one culprit is poverty,” she said.
Rollins responded to a question aimed at her record as a reformer when regarding her actions as a federal prosecutor to defend the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and involve immigration enforcement agencies in cases that led to deportation.
She countered, “As district attorney you can set policy, and I’m running so I can make policy consistent with what the legislature and voters have said.”
She continued, “In respect to my progressive record, I have sued the police for racial discrimination. I have sued the state on behalf of veterans.”
Henning said since 2009, working directly with individuals facing incarceration has been a centerpiece of his career. “It’s important for me to prevent people from returning to the criminal justice system. When I became a teacher, it’s because I understand the school to prison pipeline. My goal is to reduce recidivism and reduce any involvement in the criminal justice system.”
Champion related her progressive record to a time when she “got in trouble” in Dorchester for refusing to impose a high bail on a victim who was stabbed. “I took the fall for that,” she said. “Bail is designed to make sure people return to court, not designed to detain people.”
“Progressive is the new trendy thing to be. [But] for me, it’s life,” said Carvalho. “I’ve been a fighter against mandatory minimums, [for] raising the age of responsibility for juvenile justice, school zones. My record is not just about policy but knowing the people you grew up with and knowing the people that you serve living here.”
Henning responded to a question on witness intimidation tactics by saying he would never threaten Department of Children and Families involvement to get a witness on the stand, but in cases where public safety is at risk, he would be willing to issue a subpoena.
Rollins said that subpoenas are risky because they can create negative effects on a witness’s life and family and that she would rather focus on building trust between the community, police and the district attorney office.
McAuliffe, Champion, and Carvalho all agreed that witness cooperation is founded on building trust within the Suffolk County community. Henning then added that building trust with witnesses and victims is an essential role the district attorney’s office plays and something he has done in his own career.
McAuliffe defended her record with Roca when asked about the public criticism aimed at the organization for ignoring feedback from the black and Latinx communities it serves.
She said, “I understand my privilege and use my privilege to fight injustice and even the playing fields for the world that we have. At Roca, my management team was 75 percent people of color, my frontline staff was 65 percent people of color.”
She added, “The DA office should be an office that mirrors the community it serves, with at least 40 percent diversity.”
Safe injection sites
The candidates were asked to state their position on safe injection sites, a controversial solution to the nationwide opioid epidemic currently being explored by various cities.
Carvalho said he supports the idea of safe injection sites because “people are unfortunately addicted and will shoot up wherever they are.” He added that if addicts have a safe place to go, it might potentially be a gateway for them to get professional help.
Rollins said the opioid epidemic and addiction in general is a health issue but “no one cared about this as a health issue when black and brown people were struggling with crack addiction.” She said she is interested in looking at data where safe injection sites have been implemented, such as Canada.
Both McAuliffe and Champion said the idea was a humane and strategic tool for the addicted, but Henning said although he finds the data interesting, “nobody wants them [safe injection sites] in their backyard and that’s really the conflict we’re facing as public servants.”
Age of responsibility
Champion said she would prosecute anyone over the age of 18, especially in violent murder cases. Rollins said she does not support mandatory minimums and believes a judge deserves the discretion of looking at individual cases and “mitigating circumstances” for troubled youth.
Henning said he also agrees with the “case-by-case approach and mitigating circumstances,” and agrees with the criminal justice reform bill in protecting young individuals and making sure they are not housed in the same correction facility as adults.
Carvalho said he is proud of leading criminal justice reform with his colleagues at the State House and supporting raising the age of responsibility from 7 to 12 and allowing juveniles to expunge their records. “That is big. I stand by youth and will continue to do so,” he said.
McAuliffe said she supports raising the age of responsibility and instead of sending young people to jail, they should be “held accountable with supportive programs.”
The yes-or-no round
The third and final round of the debate entailed a series of questions in which the candidates could only answer with either “yes” or “no.”
When asked whether they believe the district attorney office’s policies and practices have contributed to the racial disparities and incarceration rates in the county, all the candidates responded with “yes” although Henning, who was called on to answer first, attempted to respond with, “We’re all at fault.”
All the candidates said “yes” to committing to collect, report and make available for free all prosecution and diversion statistics that include race and ethnicity data; to implement accountability mechanisms for assistant district attorneys to ensure policy reforms; and to create review processes for discretionary decisions on charges to determine whether decisions are consistent with an office policy of seeking the least severe acceptable charges.
However, disagreements surfaced on other issues. Both Henning and Champion said “no” to supporting the elimination of cash bail and abolishing mandatory minimums for all crimes except murder; Henning also said “no” to committing to not prosecute any simple possession drug cases and committing to seizing an individual’s assets only until after that individual is convicted of a crime. The rest answered “yes.”
The primary voting polls will open on Sept. 4, 2018 and the general election takes place Nov. 6, 2018.