Suffolk County D.A. Rachael Rollins’s Office is Still Prosecuting Cases She Pledged to Drop
Boston’s top prosecutor says big changes are in the works; advocates plan to keep pushing.
Rachael Rollins, the new district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, won national attention last summer when she pledged that if elected she would stop prosecuting 15 charges, including disorderly conduct, trespassing, and drug possession. Her supporters hailed it as a bold move while her critics, including the National Police Association, called it unprofessional and potentially dangerous.
Rollins’s campaign website noted at the time that it wasn’t an all-out ban: Pursuing these charges might still occasionally be warranted, but only under “exceptional circumstances” and after consultation with a supervisor. Generally, the charges would either be dismissed or treated as civil infractions.
But advocates say, so far, that’s not the case. Court Watch MA, a grassroots group that observes arraignments daily across three of the eight Boston Municipal Courts in Suffolk County, says that since Rollins’s Jan. 2 inauguration, its members have seen dozens of cases that seem to contradict her promises.
“For the past two weeks, racial disparities are incredibly stark, and charges on the do-not-charge list are being prosecuted all the time,” Atara Rich-Shea, a lead organizer of Court Watch MA and director of the Massachusetts Bail Fund, said on Jan. 24. “And bail is being asked and granted.”
Boston’s first Black female DA, Rollins has been lauded as a reformer with favorable comparisons to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former public defender. And members of Court Watch, many of whom knocked on doors for Rollins during her campaign, say their aim for now is to be friendly and instructive. “We’re watchdogs in places that she specifically can’t be,” explained Rich-Shea. “And our report-outs … allow her to actually make the change and target the places where retraining needs to be made.”
The group has set out to monitor Rollins’s first 100 days in office. During the first three weeks of January, members of the group say they observed 259 cases that exclusively involved charges off Rollins’s list. Of those, 118 cases, or 46 percent, advanced in criminal court.
I want to be held accountable.Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County DA
According to Court Watch, roughly half of the defendants charged exclusively with offenses on Rollins’s list during this period were Black and about a third were Latinx, while fewer than one-fifth were white. For context, Suffolk County is 62 percent white, 25 percent Black, and 23 percent Latinx. (The group’s methodology acknowledges human error and limitations, and Rich-Shea says the project is “not a replacement for actual transparency.”)
Over the three weeks, members of the group say they saw bail set in 16 cases. That concerns Zachary Lown, a defense attorney with Lown Law Firm in Boston. “Not only is it true that these cases are still being prosecuted,” he said, “but people are being put in jail without being convicted of any crime—for a crime the DA said they weren’t even going to prosecute.”
Rollins does not deny that these prosecutions are happening. In a call last week, she told The Appeal that she intends to release a “Krasner-like memo” this month—a reference to his February 2018 policy memo to staff. “I want to be held accountable,” Rollins said. “I welcome Court Watch, and very candidly I might be hiring some of them because some of their documentation is exceptional.”
“I will just say with a big smile on my face,” she added, “Larry Krasner took six weeks to release his memo.”
Krasner’s memo outlines “presumptive, not mandatory” guidelines for charging and sentencing, including a no-charge policy for marijuana possession, diversion for cases including first-time DUIs, and the directive to thoroughly explain reasoning at sentencing. Rollins said her memo is still in draft form, but will consider people’s criminal records, mandate supervisor input on certain charges, and encourage diversion for people with mental health and substance use issues.
“I am a firm believer that if we slow the process down, we will realize that the overwhelming majority [of defendants] will be people with a mental health issue or substance abuse crisis,” Rollins said. “There will be cases when we charge, but only after a more seasoned prosecutor has looked at it.”
How Rollins will reconcile this case-by-case approach with her campaign promise isn’t yet clear. On Jan. 14, Court Watch volunteer Sammy Lifson observed the arraignment of a 43-year-old homeless Black man in Roxbury on two charges from Rollins’s list: trespass and disorderly conduct. He was arrested last September, according to the DA’s office, after an alleged drug transaction in a no-trespassing area near a local Social Security office.
The man had already missed his show-cause hearing, according to Court Watch, because he does not have a permanent address. The defense explained that he is homeless, Lifson recalled, with only temporary addresses at a shelter and his sister’s house. The defense’s request for diversion was denied.
You can’t prosecute people into being well and you can’t prosecute people out of poverty.Atara Rich-Shea, Court Watch MA
Rollins’s spokesperson, Jake Wark, said the man was released pending his next court date. Prosecutors did not ask for bail, but wanted time to review the case for the “most appropriate disposition,” Wark said.
“When a case appears to be part of an ongoing pattern driven by some underlying factor—whether mental illness, substance use disorder, or something else—simply dismissing it may not be the best long-term outcome for a person or the community,” Wark added. “Part of a case review is determining how to achieve that best outcome, which is consistent with DA Rollins’ mission and pledge.”
Rich-Shea doesn’t see it that way. “That wasn’t her promise,” she said. Rollins was elected “based on a decline-to-prosecute list, not a softly prosecute list,” she added. “You can’t prosecute people into being well and you can’t prosecute people out of poverty.”
On Jan. 31, Court Watch volunteers at Boston Municipal Court observed a 30-year-old Black man arraigned on four charges from Rollins’s list: operating with a revoked license, operating an uninsured vehicle, two counts of possession, and possession with intent to distribute. The defendant was pulled over while driving. The district attorney on the case asked for $500 bail, Rollins’s office confirmed, though the judge ultimately released him on his own recognizance.
Wark noted that the man is on probation in another county and has an open domestic violence case outside Suffolk and an open restraining order. “Given the range of options available, this was a reasonable use of discretion while we formalize the data-driven policies DA Rollins has pledged to pursue,” Wark said.
Rich-Shea dismissed this explanation, noting that Rollins has spoken publicly about the disproportionate criminalization of Black Suffolk County residents.
“You make change by doing the blanket thing she has promised,” Rich-Shea said. “These scenarios aren’t easy, and I would have liked to see movement in a different direction rather than finding ways to maintain the status quo.”