Black Leaders, Rollins Discuss The Reformer DA's Leniency Plan For Non-Violent Offenses

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Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins at WBUR. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins at WBUR in 2019. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Wednesday defended her plan to not prosecute low-level offenses from some her strongest campaign supporters: black community leaders and pastors.

Nearly 30 community leaders from Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan talked with Rollins about her policies at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, expressing concerns that her policy promotes a lack of accountability for criminal activity.

"To all of you, accountability equals incarceration," Rollins said to community members at the meeting. "What I'm saying is there are 15 more steps between incarceration where we can hold people accountable."

In March, Rollins released a 65-page policy memo for "progressive prosecution," including the decision to not prosecute 15 non-violent offenses, including larceny, minor drug possession and trespassing.

At the meeting, Rollins emphasized she wanted to reduce the number of black and brown youth in the justice system by providing second chances through things like diversion programs.

She referenced that she was charged with receiving stolen property when she was a college student in 1991, and although she managed to rise to become district attorney, she said not every black or brown teen could overcome a misdemeanor charge.

"That is a brand on their life for the rest of their life. So this list [of 15 charges] is not a blanket policy. It's 'who is the person sitting before me? What do they need?' " said Rollins. "We want to give you another opportunity to change your life."

She also admitted her prosecutors will take a second look at narrowing her exclusion of trespassing as part of her policy. Rollins said a recent tour of the Bromley-Heath public housing development in Jamaica Plain with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh last week prompted her review. Residents said non-residents were seen drinking and smoking on the property, and later there were complaints that some unknown individuals had "used the washing machines as bathrooms." Rollins said that incident does illustrate some of the logic behind enforcing trespassing laws.

"That does not necessarily mean that trespassing is coming all the way off the list," she said. "When we have a community that's making a complaint ... or a tenant association, those are all factors that we take into account."

Several community leaders who planned the Rollins meeting said many of the weekly meetings at the Ella J. Baker House have centered on debate around the district attorney's policy.

The Rev. Roxie Coicou said she initially thought Rollins was too soft on minor offenses. But after hearing the DA's remarks Wednesday, Coicou said she understands the policy is fluid.

"It's a sound plan. She doesn't talk about [it as if] it's etched in stone, and she has all the answers," she said. "She talks about it as being a work in progress."

Several other people at the meeting said that while they supported Rollins in her campaign and her pledge to bring about criminal justice reform, they're now skeptical her policies will help reduce crime. One vocal critic even told Rollins that the DA's policy will haunt her legacy. The people who were vocal about their criticisms in the meeting declined to talk to WBUR.

But several community members like Rhodes Pierre, who grew up in Mattapan and teaches financial literacy workshops in the area, urged people to let Rollins' work speak for itself.

"It's like every crime now that happens now is gonna be her fault because of trying something new. Crime existed before she got here," said Pierre. "So let's kind of really give it a chance for her programs to work or take effect before we make judgments."

This segment aired on May 29, 2019.


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Jerome Campbell Reporter
Jerome Campbell was a WBUR Poverty and Justice Fellow whose reporting was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.



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