Middlesex County debates guidelines and data necessary to achieve reform

Daniel Nichanian

The district attorney of Middlesex County—the state’s most populous county, home to Lowell and Cambridge—is campaigning for re-election as a progressive who has already been reforming the county’s criminal justice system. Her opponent in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary rejects that characterization, questioning the reliability of reform announcements absent precise guidelines and absent tools to track implementation.

Take cash bail, for instance. The Vera Institute of Justice found that the number of pretrial detainees has more than doubled since Marian Ryan became DA in 2013. In January, Ryan announced an important reform: She would no longer request cash bail from people charged with low-level nonviolent offenses. But her announcement remained vague as to what offenses it would cover. Jessica Brand reported in The Appeal that Ryan’s office continued to seek cash bail in cases that fall into a layperson’s definition of low-level and nonviolence. “[DAs know] the definition of ‘nonviolent’ or ‘low level’ is a murky one … that they can make up as they go along,” Atara Rich-Shea of the Massachusetts Bail Fund told The Appeal.

Ryan’s challenger, Donna Patalano, says that her first priority is “real reform of cash bail.” “I will specifically define the offenses the bail policy pertains to so that the public can hold the office accountable, and so that prosecutors in the courts know how to implement the policy,” Patalano pledged. In a July debate, Ryan rejected creating such a list. Other recent DA races (such as Boulder’s in June) have featured this same debate over whether reforming the bail system requires limiting prosecutors’ discretion or entrusting them to exercise it wisely.

Patalano, who was endorsed by the Boston Globe this week, also faults Ryan for not releasing data pertaining to her policies, including her bail requests. “If [the criminal justice system] functions like a black hole, then how can we know what we’re doing is fair and just?” Patalano asked. She has thus questioned whether all groups enjoy equal access to rehabilitation. “Who gets diverted? Who gets to go to drug court? Who gets pretrial probation? We don’t know any of this,” she said. Ryan has answered by emphasizing her dedication to reform. “I’m not waiting for the data to show me there’s an inequity,” she said.

Ryan has advocated legislative reforms that have put her at odds with her fellow prosecutors. She was the only one of the state’s 11 DAs to not sign a letter defending mandatory minimums in 2015; she later broke with nearly all of these prosecutors in supporting legislative reforms that repealed mandatory minimums for some drug offenses. In answering an ACLU questionnaire, Ryan highlights these positions. She also says that she does not back repealing such minimums for all drug-related offenses, whereas Patalano states that she supports their full repeal.

Update: On Sept. 4, Marian Ryan secured her re-election as DA of Middlesex County by defeating her challenger Donna Patalano with approximately 54 percent of the vote. She will now be the only candidate on the November ballot.