Massachusetts district attorney races and the progressive prosecutor

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East Boston District Court. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
East Boston District Court. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Progressive prosecutors are facing a backlash across the country.

San Francisco residents recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin after he was blamed for a rash of brazen thefts across the city. Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to impeach the liberal DA in Philadelphia. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed a progressive prosecutor in his state this month. And Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins faced a bitter confirmation fight before she became U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts early this year.

Now the conflict has shifted to Massachusetts, where the battle is playing out very differently from one county to the next.

In Berkshire County, a progressive incumbent is facing a primary challenge. In two other counties, progressive insurgents are taking on more traditional DAs. In Suffolk, both candidates are embracing the progressive label — despite significant policy differences. By contrast, in Essex, neither candidate wants to call themselves a progressive, even though they support some similar policies.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, says most voters here want to overhaul the criminal justice system, despite resistance in some other states.

"I think it remains really relevant in all of the races that are contested in Massachusetts today, because people see the power that the DAs have and how they can use that power to reduce both crime and incarceration," Rose said.

Nationally, the progressive prosecutor movement began about five years ago when several prominent DAs won on promises to stop prosecuting minor crimes, ending cash bail and other liberal policies normally associated with criminal justice advocates, not prosecutors. The group Fair and Just Prosecution estimates one in five Americans now lives in districts with progressive prosecutors.

“Communities are embracing change,” said Miriam Krinsky, founder and executive director of the group. “Voters know that we have to address the underlying issues people face rather than punish our way out of problems."

Still, progressive DAs have also faced recalls and election challenges — even in blue states like California and Massachusetts.

“Voters know that we have to address the underlying issues people face rather than punish our way out of problems."

Miriam Krinsky

In western Massachusetts, attorney Timothy Shugrue is challenging Berkshire DA Andrea Harrington in the Democratic primary next month.

Shugrue contends Berkshire DA Andrea Harrington's decision not to prosecute many lower-level crimes has strained the relationship between local police and prosecutors.

"This administration dismisses all minor drug cases," Shugrue said. "There's frustration on the part of the community and the police that we're just ignoring these problems that exist and there is no accountability. "

Shugure says the county is small enough to consider each criminal case individually, and carefully review options such as diversion and alternatives to incarceration.

“We're not Boston, we're Berkshire County," he said. “I also believe in diversion. But just not charging people is not diversion. Just not charging people is kicking the can down the road."

“ ... just not charging people is not diversion. Just not charging people is kicking the can down the road."

Timothy Shugrue

But Harrington says she is finding ways to improve public safety and reduce court backlogs. She said she is proud of the changes her office has made, such as eliminating cash bail for minor crimes and focusing resources on more serious crimes. She said her office looks for alternatives for people who commit crimes because of poverty, mental health issues or addiction.

"We prosecute cases that warrant involvement from the courts,” Harrington said. “There are different ways of holding people accountable."

By contrast, a progressive criminal defense attorney is taking on a moderate DA in the Democratic primary in Bristol County, which includes Fall River and New Bedford.

Former prosecutor Shannon McMahon is running against Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn, who has never faced a challenger before in his seven years in office.

McMahon said the office needs to change and bring in innovative approaches like specialized courts to deal with problems such as poverty and addiction.

"Recovery works and treatment works,” McMahon said. “Most other jurisdictions have realized that by now. But the current administration just doesn't believe in it and he thinks the sole job is to just prosecute.”

Quinn said he supports diversion, but says it’s up to the judicial system — not district attorneys — to create special courts.

“I've been involved in another number of diversion programs so I'm open to those things,” he said. “But I don't think she understands the process."

Quinn, who touts his experience, has a huge lead in fundraising with $300,000 in cash on hand compared to just $5,000 for McMahon.

An even starker contest will be on display in Plymouth County in November, where civil rights attorney Rahsaan Hall is taking on longtime Republican District Attorney Tim Cruz.

By contrast, both Democrats running for district attorney in Suffolk County call themselves progressives.

Both current District Attorney Kevin Hayden, who Gov. Charlie Baker appointed to replace Rollins in January, and Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo say they support many liberal policies.

That includes boosting diversion and other ways to keep people out of the criminal legal system. They both also say they support taking steps to address racial disparities and improve transparency and accountability when dealing with police accused of misconduct.

Kevin Hayden, left, and Ricardo Arroyo, the candidates for Suffolk County district attorney. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kevin Hayden, left, and Ricardo Arroyo, the candidates for Suffolk County district attorney. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But Arroyo has called for more aggressive changes than Hayden. Arroyo says he supports eliminating mandatory sentences, as well as getting rid of cash bail for minor offenses and qualified immunity, which protects some police officers from liability if they are convicted of misconduct, while Hayden has not.

Despite the policy differences, the race has been dominated in recent weeks by nasty allegations. Hayden has faced questions whether his office tried to quash a probe into officer misconduct, while Arroyo is facing questions about allegations of complaints that he sexually assaulted two women years ago. Arroyo was never criminally charged. Both candidates have denied the accusations.

In Essex County, both Democrats seeking to replace retiring district attorney Jonathan Blodgett dismiss the progressive label, but say they would implement innovative programs if elected.

"I don't like labels," said state Rep. Paul Tucker, a former Salem police chief and one of the two candidates running for Essex County district attorney. "I think we do a disservice to ourselves, particularly in the criminal justice space, if we start talking about conservative and liberal. "

The other candidate, defense attorney James O'Shea, says he supports an individualized approach — not blanket policies — when handling criminal cases.

"When you start to say we're going to take certain crimes and decriminalize them or not ask bail on them, you're communicating what you're going to do to the bad guys,” O’Shea said.

The only Republican district attorney primary is for the seat held by retiring Cape and Islands DA Michael O'Keefe. Three candidates are running in the primary: Melissa Alden, of Barnstable; John F. Carey, of Sandwich and Daniel Higgins, of Barnstable.

None of the Republicans identifies as a progressive prosecutor. And several DAs are running unopposed.

This segment aired on August 29, 2022.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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