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Friday marked Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins' 100th day in office. Rollins was elected last November on a promise to end cash bail, send drug users to treatment instead of jail, and stop prosecuting 15 low-level charges.
In recent days, that reform agenda came into sharp focus once again, in part due to heat from the Baker administration, and a vigorous defense from Rollins.
But underneath the war of words is a question: What is happening on the ground?
The Court Watchers
Inside a second-floor conference room in Roxbury on a recent Sunday, about a dozen volunteers reenacted key players in a courtroom. Colin Delaney, a bartender from Cambridge, played the clerk.
"Ms. Roberts is being charged with possession with intent to distribute a class B substance, shoplifting and resisting arrest," he said.
The volunteers were training to go sit in court and collect data. They're part of a group of more than 100 people who five days a week, in four courts in the Boston municipal court system, sit and watch arraignments.
They’re called CourtWatch MA, and they’re zeroing in on how assistant district attorneys prosecute 15 specific charges — the 15 charges Rollins placed on a list of “Charges to Be Declined” when she campaigned for DA.
Many of the volunteers supported Rollins’ bid for office.
"We really want her to be successful," said Atara Rich-Shea, the group's spokeswoman. "We think that the kind of change that she is promising will make a huge difference to the people who are being prosecuted and the people that are sort of churned through our courts."
The court watchers take notes with paper and pen, and then enter them in an online form. A volunteer data analyst compiles the notes into a spreadsheet.
Although Rollins was swept into office on a promise to radically change the way the Suffolk County district attorney’s office prosecutes crime, the court watchers said that during the first few months, nothing had changed.
"We really want her to be successful. We think that the kind of change that she is promising will make a huge difference to the people ... that are sort of churned through our courts."Atara Rich-Shea, spokeswoman for CourtWatch MA
"I think we are finding, unfortunately, that there’s been no shift and no change," Rich-Shea said. "Every week, we see the same racial disparities, the same number of prosecutions for charges on [Rollins'] 'do-not-prosecute' [list], the same kinds of asking for bail in situations where our understanding [is] that bail would no longer be asked for."
Court watchers logged cases in which the DA promised to eliminate the use of cash bail, or not prosecute at all — but where the opposite was happening.
Cases like this: In February, a man who court watchers say was homeless was charged with larceny under $1,200. The prosecutor asked for $500 bail. The judge set it at $200. The man couldn't come up with the money and was sent back to jail.
"I just think about the people who are being prosecuted for those things right now who spent a weekend in jail, or are in jail, because they couldn’t afford bail, or have to come back to court and don’t really understand why ... while we are waiting," Rich-Shea said.
There was a simple reason for this. Rollins hadn’t released any sort of guidance, any office policy, telling her assistant district attorneys to do anything differently.
So although Rollins was still out in public talking about reforming the criminal justice system, in the absence of a policy, the court watchers said, the regular business of court told a different story.
Then, three months into her time in office, she officially issued guidance in 65 pages on not only those 15 charges but several other prosecutorial decisions.
'One Individual In A Larger System'
The policy memo Rollins issued requires line prosecutors get supervisors’ approval to request cash bail. It asks them to report the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to her or her top deputies.
And crucially, those 15 charges on Rollins' list were, with a few conditions, not to be prosecuted.
Why? Rollins pointed to internal data that show 17 of the 25 most commonly prosecuted charges in Suffolk County since 2013 are nonviolent.
"Overwhelmingly, this list of 15, they’re not violent crimes, and they’re clogging people up in the criminal justice system," Rollins said. "I want to focus on violent crimes."
But not everybody was happy about the policy.
A week after its release, Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety secretary, Thomas Turco, came out with a public letter that said Rollins’ policies would restrict the state’s ability to protect victims of serious crimes and hurt its efforts to fight the opioid crisis.
The next afternoon, Baker told reporters he shared Turco’s concerns.
"You send a really bad message not just to people who might potentially do those sorts of things, but you send a really bad message to the people who would be on the receiving end of that type of behavior," Baker said.
Some Rollins supporters took the attack on her policies personally. Monica Cannon-Grant, an anti-violence activist in Boston, organized a rally in support of Rollins. It drew more than 200 people.
"We elected her, we can’t leave her. We can’t let her take these shots, and not have her back," Cannon-Grant said. "We gotta be her bulletproof vest."
Rollins, for her part, promised on stage never to back down from a fight.
"This is an example of when someone slaps you in the face and thinks you’re gonna turn away and cry, and you take your earrings off, roundhouse kick them dead in the face, and then punch them to the ground," she said.
Turco’s office declined a request for an interview. Turco and Rollins met Thursday to hash things out, and a spokesman for Rollins said the pair had a "positive and productive" meeting.
Adam Foss, a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney who now heads Prosecutor Impact, an organization that trains prosecutors across the U.S. in criminal justice reform, has been another prominent ally for Rollins. They're close friends.
Foss reflected on his time at the DA’s office, and said he feels many line prosecutors — and the police who work with them — were ready for these kinds of changes.
"There are many police officers in Boston, in the surrounding areas, that I'm sure are excited to do better things with their time than break up families and arrest people for trespassing and for unlicensed motor vehicle operation," he said.
Now that Rollins has issued her policy memo, the court watchers, like Rich-Shea, say although the sample size is small, they’re seeing some changes taking shape in court.
"They’re seeing a lot more cases get dismissed at the outset and before arraignment," Rich-Shea said. "So we’re hopeful that’s what the data will show."
Rollins said she is also relying on CourtWatch MA's reporting.
"We are fortunate to have CourtWatch [MA], which is showing up every day — and I’m not joking, I mean it. I’m excited the community’s involved," Rollins said. "And very candidly, I’m sometimes learning from CourtWatch what it is that’s happening in my office.
"I’m not making excuses, but they’re still getting to know me, my office," she added.
There’s evidence to show what Rollins is doing is not new. A data analysis by the ACLU of Massachusetts shows a majority of the cases involving charges on her decline-to-prosecute list were diverted or dismissed by the former DA.
They found in 2013 and 2014, nearly 60 percent of charges on the list ended in a dismissal.
"I recognize that she is one individual in a larger system that is highly problematic and has a deep history of racism ..."Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program
"Why [do prosecutors] disrupt people's lives like this, if the case should have never been brought in the first place because it was only going to get dismissed or the person was going to be acquitted?" said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
Hall acknowledged Rollins is, however, up against an entrenched system.
"I recognize that she is one individual in a larger system that is highly problematic and has a deep history of racism and racially disparate prosecution and enforcement of laws," he said. "And there's only so much that this one black woman can do to undo generations of a system rooted in white supremacy."
DA Rollins’ has been in office 100 days. Her term is four years.
These first months show that fulfilling the promises she ran on will be full of challenges. What’s for sure, though: all eyes are on her.
This segment aired on April 11, 2019.
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