For the first time in decades, it’s a truly open race for the Suffolk County district attorney. Current DA Dan Conley announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t run for reelection after 16 years in the job.
It's a crowded field to replace him, with five Democrats on the primary ballot on Sept. 4. Whoever wins that race will face off against an independent candidate. No Republicans are running.
This is an unusual year. Not only is there an open seat for the first time in almost 100 years, but there’s extra emphasis on the power district attorneys have — and the relative lack of attention that’s paid to them. A recent survey from the ACLU found that almost 40 percent of Massachusetts voters don’t even know that DAs are elected.
The ACLU's Rahsaan Hall says the organization's campaign, "What A Difference A DA Makes," is all about getting more people aware of what a DA does and the power that person wields.
"There has been a conversation happening in progressive circles around criminal law reform and mass incarceration and everyone has talked about changing the laws or changing the way policing happens, but nobody's really talking about one of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system that can impact change in a dramatic way, and that is the district attorney," Hall said.
"[N]obody's really talking about one of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system that can impact change in a dramatic way, and that is the district attorney."Rashaan Hall, ACLU
The field of Suffolk candidates is made up of several progressives who have big ideas on how they’d reform the DA's office and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the community it most affects. Those ideas range from getting rid of cash bail, to diversifying the office, to dismissing lower-level nonviolent crimes all together.
Among them is Shannon McAuliffe. She spent a dozen years as a defense attorney in Suffolk County before heading up the nonprofit Roca. She said there, they track everything about the young people in their organization, from how they do at jobs to GED scores. That's something she thinks the DA's office can do more of.
And as for fixing the racial disparities in the justice system, she says that starts with actually admitting those disparities exist.
“We can keep again denying that the system is really based on systemic injustice and discrimination," she said. "Or we can embrace that and say this is actually our reality. And now, how are we going to train against it, and push against it, and ensure that the discrimination that exists in the world doesn't continue to invade our courtrooms and exacerbate that?"
The next DA will have to address a gap in arrest rates for black and white homicide victims in Boston. Washington Post reporters found that when white people are killed in Boston there’s almost always an arrest. Black victims? Just 42 percent of the time.
One candidate says it's a matter of priorities. Linda Champion is a former assistant district attorney who most recently worked at the state Department of Industrial Accidents. She wants to see prosecutors dropping petty cases, and instead bringing serious cases to trial, even if the evidence doesn't seem to guarantee a win.
She says the DA's office right now is too focused on its win-loss record. As evidence of that, she said she spoke to a mother who told her prosecutors kept stressing that they could lose her case if they went forward.
"When the mother told me that, it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach," Champion said. "She really doesn't care about your wins and losses. She cares about justice. And so that's your only job: to seek the truth, to present the evidence, and after that it's out of our hands."
Another idea to try to solve more cases comes from Greg Henning, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney and head of the gang unit — who on Friday was endorsed by Conley. His big plan is to create an unsolved shooting team that would investigate the 700 or so times a year when a gun is fired — whether someone's hit by gunfire or not.
"Unsolved shootings and unsolved murders are different things but [with] unsolved shootings, it can have the effect of down the line taking somebody off the street that might end up causing the murder of somebody," Henning said. "So that is a proactive way that we can address the murder rate in a proactive way that we can address violence."
Henning has an unusual background for a prosecutor. For a few years, he worked as a teacher and he says he continues to work with young people in the city, including some of those he locked up.
Lived experience came up a lot in conversations with the candidates. State Rep. Evandro Carvalho says his background as an assistant district attorney and state representative living in Dorchester means he's the best suited to connect with those who are most often caught up in the legal system.
He spoke about what it's like to walk around the city as a black man — when he's in a hoodie and not in a suit — and feeling that anxiety when a police car rolls up behind him.
"I'm someone from this community, an educated black man, who's currently a state representative, a public official in the city of Boston," Carvalho said. "But when I'm driving or even walking in a neighborhood where people don't know me, when I see a police officer I'm debating, what kind of experience is this going to be?"
Another candidate, Rachael Rollins, is a former prosecutor and general counsel for MassDOT and Massport. She talked about something she learned at a business class at Harvard: Monopolies have no incentive to serve their customers better. And, she says, law enforcement is a monopoly.
She says prosecutors and police need to remember that they're in the service industry. Rollins recounted meeting mothers who had lost children to violence, who hadn't heard from a detective or prosecutor about their child's case in years.
"Even if there's nothing to report, people who were raised right know that there should [be] at least — even on the anniversary of that terrible day — a call coming in to say, 'We haven't forgotten. We are so sorry for your loss,' " she said. "Those type of touches alone show compassion and that you matter and your loved one mattered and that's not even happening now."
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face off against the independent candidate, Michael Maloney, a defense attorney.
His big push is to create harm reduction zones: places where drug users could get high safely. He also wants as panel to look at re-sentencing people facing long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
This segment aired on August 20, 2018.