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Only Republican DA seeking re-election in Mass. faces progressive challenger in Plymouth

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Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz, photographed in 2017, and Rahsaan Hall, photographed in 2016. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images and Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz, photographed in 2017, and Rahsaan Hall, photographed in 2016. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images and Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz, the only Republican district attorney seeking re-election in Massachusetts, is trying to fend off a challenge from Democrat Rahsaan Hall this week.

The contest marks an important challenge for the so-called progressive prosecutor movement, which hopes to overhaul the criminal justice system and suffered key losses in Massachusetts this fall.

Timothy Shugrue defeated fellow Andrea Harrington, the progressive district attorney in Berkshire County, in the Democratic primary. Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a progressive Democrat, lost his bid for Suffolk County district attorney to the more moderate Kevin Hayden, a fellow Democrat who was appointed as interim district attorney in January.

Nationally, progressives have also faced challenges around the country with concerns rising about crime in some major cities. For instance, San Francisco residents overwhelmingly voted to recall a progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in June.

But Democrats are hoping to beat two Republicans in the Bay State on Tuesday. Democratic attorney Robert Galibois is running against Republican Assistant District Attorney Daniel Higgins for the district that includes Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The seat is open because longtime District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, a Republican, is retiring.

And in Plymouth County, Hall is challenging Cruz, the longtime Republican incumbent. Despite the recent setbacks in Massachusetts and across the country, Hall says there is still a lot of interest in criminal justice reform.

"The voices that would normally push for the type of reforms within the system aren't there," said Hall, who worked as a prosecutor in Suffolk County and led the ACLU's racial justice program.

Rev. Rahsaan Hall, of the St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, speaks outside the State House on July 20, 2020 in Boston. (Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Rev. Rahsaan Hall, of the St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, speaks outside the State House on July 20, 2020 in Boston. (Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Hall, also an ordained minister, vowed to find "another way to deal with harm and disruption in a community that doesn't over-criminalize and overburden people and still find ways to keep people safe and healthy in their communities."

Hall says his views are similar to former Suffolk County district attorney and now U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins. He supports her so-called "do not prosecute" list of low level crimes where prosecutors wouldn't automatically prosecute, but would seek diversion instead. Hall said he would also support reducing cash bail with the goal of eliminating it entirely.

"This is a very significant moment in the life of progressive reform in the criminal legal system here in Massachusetts," Hall said.

Much of his time on the campaign trail has been focused on educating voters about the role of the county prosecutor and outlining his proposals to improve transparency and collect data to measure outcomes and the effectiveness of reforms. He said he realizes he's running in what's considered a more conservative part of a blue state,  but he said he's encouraged.

"Because the public narrative around this system tends to default to law and order and public safety, a lot of people don't push for or expect the types of reforms that are achievable," Hall said.

Hall points to research showing that crime declined in Suffolk County under Rollins. But Cruz, who has been district attorney in Plymouth for more than two decades, questions that research and says progressive reforms have been ineffective.

"People are talking about reimagining criminal justice," Cruz said. "I don't believe that our county is ready for the philosophies of a progressive district attorney who wants to turn a courthouse into a turnstile where people are coming in and out of there. I think that's very dangerous and I think it doesn't work."

Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz holds a news conference in 2017. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz holds a news conference in 2017. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Cruz opposes reducing bail and creating a list of crimes that would not be automatically prosecuted. He also supports mandatory minimum sentences and opposes raising the age by which a juvenile charged with a crime is treated as an adult.

To be sure, Cruz acknowledges that many crimes are related to poverty, addiction and mental health, but he said his office already has programs to address those issues. He also said crime rates in Plymouth County are down, showing he has been effective as the region's top prosecutor.

"We're in an era where cases are going down, the people that are being incarcerated are going down," Cruz said. "That means what you're doing is working and you can continue to help your community and keep it safe and at the same time help people with these terrible diseases like addiction and mental health problems."

Cruz also noted he has beaten a string of Democratic challengers before.

"I'm the last standing Republican DA, which is why there's a target on my back," Cruz said. "This is my sixth election and it's the fourth time I've been contested. I think I've had more contested elections than all the other DAs put together."

In addition, incumbents traditionally have a big advantage at the polls, particularly for low-profile races.

Still, Cruz may be vulnerable, according to Nasser Eledroos, managing director for Northeastern University's Center for Law Information and Creativity. Eledroos says some recent studies have found criminal justice reform efforts are effective.

"The body of research is there," Eledroos said. "It's now a big, long game of trying to communicate that effectively to voters."

Eledroos also thought the demographics in Plymouth County have gradually shifted, increasing the odds for Democratic challenger. President Joe Biden got 57% of the votes, compared to Donald Trump's 40% two years ago.

The results for this year's contest should be in soon. Polls close in Massachusetts at 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Cruz was the only Republican district attorney in Mass. He is the only GOP district attorney seeking re-election. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

This segment aired on November 7, 2022.

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Deborah Becker Twitter 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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