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Is DA Hayden reversing Rollins’ policies?

Public defenders cite changes in office

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Is DA Hayden reversing Rollins’ policies?
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden. BANNER PHOTO

When he was appointed Suffolk County District Attorney in January, Kevin Hayden said he would maintain his predecessor Rachael Rollins’ commitment to reducing the county’s carceral footprint, not criminalizing poverty and drug addiction and not prosecuting low-level offenses.

“Those are all things I have stood behind and supported, even when I was in the DA’s office many years ago,” he told GBH News anchor Jim Braude.

Yet four months into his administration, some are questioning Hayden’s commitment to the bold criminal justice reforms voters chose when they elected Rollins in 2018. While Rollins’ policy was for assistant district attorneys in her office to decline to prosecute 15 misdemeanor crimes — including trespassing, disorderly conduct, and breaking and entering — unless prosecuting such charges was approved by a supervisor, Hayden has left prosecution of misdemeanors up to the discretion of the assistant district attorneys.

Christian Williams, a former defense attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services who is now a clinical instructor with the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Institute says Hayden’s prosecutors in Roxbury District Court are regularly pressing charges for low-level misdemeanors at arraignment.

He points to a client who was arrested and jailed for selling loose cigarettes in Nubian Square.

“This is just an old guy selling cigarettes,” he said. “I don’t get how he’s really hurting anyone.”

The policy change, and the apparent increase in prosecutors’ willingness to pursue low-level offenses, reads like a roll-back of Rollins’ policy, criminal justice reform advocates say.

“That’s not what people voted for,” said former Superior Court Justice Geraldine Hines. “Rollins said what she would do. They can’t say her policies had a negative effect on public safety. It works.”

During a June 13 forum sponsored by the Ward 12 Democratic Committee, Hayden said his office is treating defendants with sensitivity, despite the absence of a clear policy.

“It’s not about the charges,” he said. “It’s not about a formula for the charges. It’s about the people that catch the charges and how we’re going to help them when they’ve reached the touchpoint of our system.”

During that same forum, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, Hayden’s opponent in the race for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, noted that former District Attorney Dan Conley’s office declined to prosecute the crimes Rollins added to her do-not-prosecute list 60% of the time. Under Rollins, the office declined such charges 74% of the time.

Arroyo said during the forum that the policy to decline misdemeanors, as implemented by Rollins, helped even the playing field between white defendants and defendants of color.

“The difference was that how it was no longer based on the different micro-biases and things that might be happening on the ADA level,” he said. “It was based on policies, so Black people and people of color, Latino people and other folks could access those things just as equally as somebody else who was not of that same race or class structure.”

Williams, whose client was eventually released from jail and had his charges dismissed, said Hayden may face challenges relying on the discretion of his Roxbury District Court assistant district attorneys, many of whom began practicing law as the COVID pandemic set in and therefore have had little experience in court.

“None of them got their bar license before October 2019, except the supervisor,” he said. “They have less experience. I don’t think they’re inclined to dismiss cases.”

Inside the office

During the June 13 forum, Hayden highlighted initiatives his office has undertaken to help divert cases from criminal prosecution and provide avenues for rehabilitation. He pointed to his Community Engagement/Strategic Partnerships Unit, headed by veteran anti-violence activist True-See Allah and the Rev. Wayne Daley, a former re-entry coordinator with the Boston TenPoint Coalition. He noted that his office has committed $400,000 in funds seized from people charged with drug crimes to the office’s Services Over Sentences program, aimed at helping people who are arrested in the Mass and Cass area to receive drug treatment and counseling.

Hayden also announced a pilot restorative justice program in Roxbury, Charlestown and Chelsea district courts for non-violent offenses.

In restorative justice programs, victims and community members commonly work out ways for offenders to make up for crimes they have committed. In Hayden’s version, community members are not part of the process, but prosecutors are. Several criminal justice reform groups panned Hayden’s plan, citing its limited scope and what some described as a lack of community involvement.

“We are deeply concerned,” a member of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense lawyers wrote in a statement, “that this proposal appears to grant prosecutors unilateral and unchecked control; shuts the door to many categories of criminal charges, rather than making case-by-case determinations based on the needs of the affected parties and specific facts of a case in a manner consistent with restorative justice principles; and lacks confidentiality protections for defendants and community members who would participate in sensitive conversations that appear to involve law enforcement.”

Former employees of the DA’s office who worked under Rollins, none of whom would speak on the record, pointed to other changes in the office. For one, Hayden has appointed as members of his executive team several of his former colleagues from the administrations of former District Attorneys Ralph Martin and Dan Conley, including Kevin Mullen, whom Hayden appointed as his first assistant district attorney.

Mullen, a Quincy resident, frequently defended police officers in misconduct cases while working in private practice.

At the same time, Hayden dismantled the office’s Special Prosecutions Unit, which Rollins established in part to prosecute cases of misconduct in law enforcement.

A spokesman for Hayden’s office, James Borghesani, reiterated Hayden’s claim that he is continuing Rollins’ reform policies.

“We haven’t rolled back a single one of her positions,” he told the Banner.

But public defenders reached by the Banner said they have seen notable changes in the office.

“It’s not a continuation of Rachael’s policies,” said Arnie Stewart, deputy chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “It feels like a departure.”

The race

Early in his tenure, Hayden announced he would prioritize removing illegal handguns from the streets of Suffolk County. In March, he rolled out a rapid indictment program for people charged in gun cases, assigning two prosecutors and making two grand juries available to prosecute gun crimes.

Dorchester activist Davida Andelman said Hayden’s focus on removing illegal guns as well as his history working as an assistant district attorney with the Safe Streets Initiative in the 1990s helped him win the endorsement of the Ward 15 Democratic Committee.

“He got neighborhood engagement back then,” she said.

The nod from the Dorchester Democrats along with an endorsement Tuesday from his former boss, Ralph Martin, and a nod last week from U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch represented his most significant endorsements yet.

Arroyo, who announced his campaign for the seat in January, however, has received the lion’s share of endorsements, with most Black and Latino elected officials in Boston and Chelsea backing his campaign, as well as Mayor Michelle Wu and U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

Hayden and Arroyo will appear on the Democratic ballot in the Sept. 6 primary. The winner will be unopposed in the November election.

criminal justice reform, misdemeanor crimes, prosecution, rachael rollins, Tags: Kevin Hayden