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Rollins, Baker administration spar over policy

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Rollins, Baker administration spar over policy
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins addresses an audience at the Prince Hall lodge. Looking on are Min. Randy Muhammad, City Councilor Michelle Wu and Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo. Banner photo

Within days of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ March 25 memo outlining sweeping changes to the way her office handles misdemeanor crimes, state Secretary of Public Safety Thomas Turco fired a warning shot across her bow, charging in a memo that her policies would make communities more dangerous.

Turco’s memo prompted fierce reactions from Rollins’ supporters, including U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and a group of local and state elected officials who were among the 180-or-so people at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Grove Hall Sunday for a rally in support of Rollins.

A crowd of 180-or-so supporters turned out at the Prince Hall Lodge in Grove Hall. BANNER PHOTO

A crowd of 180-or-so supporters turned out at the Prince Hall Lodge in Grove Hall. BANNER PHOTO

“We stand with our duly-elected district attorney Rachael Rollins,” said Nation of Islam Minister Randy Muhammad. “We’re here to send a strong message to anyone who would come against her: She is our district attorney. Hands off our D.A.”

Last week Rollins said the memo, which codifies her policy of requiring assistant district attorneys to refrain from prosecuting 15 types of misdemeanors without approval from a supervisor, was aimed at decreasing the load of petty crimes such as trespassing, drug possession and driving offenses that clog the courts. She blasted Gov. Charlie Baker and Turco for releasing the memo to her and the media without first calling her.

“My prosecutors distinguish between petty offenses and serious criminal conduct every single day, and I’d be happy to address [Turco’s] hypothetical concerns with some of our real-world experience anytime he wants to pick up the phone,” she said in a press statement Friday.

Speaking to reporters, Rollins blasted Baker for allowing state police to handle the investigation into a 2018 incident during which his own son was accused of groping a woman while she slept on an airline flight.

“Not everyone gets the benefit of the Baker family when they have interacted with the criminal justice system. They don’t get to not get arrested, have the State Police that reports to them handle the investigation, et cetera,” she told reporters. “Most moms that are living in Suffolk County don’t have a $1,000 lawyer to handle the charge brought against their son, their daughter or their loved one.”

In crafting her 66-page memo on the list of 15 charges, Rollins says she made a strong case for diverting people facing misdemeanor cases from the criminal justice system into social service programs, mental health and drug counseling and other programs, rather than burdening the court system with cases that often end up being dismissed.

“When I produced these 66 pages, I made sure I had evidence, that I had data and it was supported by what other people in the country are doing, because I knew they’d come for me,” Rollins said, speaking at the Prince Hall Lodge Sunday. “Now I can tell you what the secretary’s letter didn’t have: A single piece of evidence or data supporting it.”

On Saturday, Rollins said, Baker telephoned her to apologize for Turco’s letter.

Lost in the news coverage of the back-and-forth between Rollins and the Baker administration were the voices of activist groups in the broader push for criminal justice reform that helped Rollins get elected with more than 185,000 votes in Suffolk County. Rollins and her supporters cite that victory margin as a mandate for change.

Groups including the ACLU of Massachusetts and Lawyers for Civil Rights wrote a letter Saturday to Baker blasting Turco’s memo.

“Secretary Turco’s assertion that not prosecuting certain misdemeanors and low-level felonies will undermine public safety is wrong on its face,” the letter reads. “It ignores the fact that Rollins’ predecessor in the office, Dan Conley, dismissed the majority of these types of cases — with no ascertainable impact on public safety.”

The civil rights groups also blasted the Baker administration for having few people of color in cabinet positions and noted that Rollins was elected with 80 percent of the vote in Suffolk County.

“Suffolk County voters made their choice clear when they overwhelmingly elected a district attorney who promised to reform our criminal legal system that, for far too long, has been unfair, racially biased, and harmful to communities of color and poor people,” the letter reads.

Rollins first released her list of 15 misdemeanor crimes last year, while she was one of five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. After the Democratic primary, officials from unions representing Boston Police spoke publicly against her list.

Police accountability activists countered that police were more concerned with the overtime they earn making court appearances for misdemeanors than with pursuing effective criminal justice strategies, a theme City Councilor Kim Janey echoed Sunday in Grove Hall.

“We have a district attorney who understands that we are not going to profit off the pain of the people in our community,” she said.

Rollins told the Grove Hall gathering she will continue to work with police and state officials on tackling criminal justice issues while continuing to press forward with criminal justice reforms.

“The governor saw that this was not going the way he thought it would, and he picked up the phone, and now we are done with that,” she said referencing Baker’s Saturday call. “We’re not going to talk about that anymore, because there is too much work to be done with this system.”

Rollins said she and the governor would move forward to help communities impacted by the criminal justice system.

She noted that Saturday night, she, Mayor Martin Walsh and Police Commissioner William Gross spent hours at a crime scene where a 74-year-old woman was shot to death in Mattapan and said she would remain focused on prosecuting serious crimes.

“I am going to work tirelessly to make sure that the community feels and knows that we care about you,” she said.

Sunday’s event was organized by Roxbury anti-violence activist Monica Cannon Grant. Elected officials in attendance included state Reps. Russell Holmes and Nika Elugardo, Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo and City Councilor Michelle Wu.