Rachael Rollins Announces New D.A. Policies in Boston

Daniel Nichanian | March 27, 2019

Mayor's Office Photo by John Wilcox

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Explore the Political Report's interactive page on the politics and policies of prosecutors.

Three months into her tenure as Suffolk County DA, Rachael Rollins issued a hefty memo that reforms her office’s prosecutorial practices based on a stated goal to “file fewer criminal charges, divert more people into services and treatment, send fewer people to jail and prison.” Rollins was elected in November to replace Dan Conley, who was resistant to reform. The Political Report dug into some of Rollins’s announcements, though readers interested in its full scope of these reforms should read the memo.

  • Bail: Lower-income people get stuck in pretrial detention due to an inability to pay bail. The memo sets a presumption that all people should be released without conditions, and that this presumption can be overridden only with “clear evidence of a flight risk,” or, in certain cases, a dangerousness hearing. Berkshire County DA Andrea Harrington, who like Rollins was elected in November, implemented similar reforms in February.
  • Declinations: Rollins made a much-publicized campaign commitment to adopt a default policy of declining to prosecute 15 offenses, such as drug possession, trespassing, or driving with a suspended license. But since she took office, local advocates like Court Watch MA, a grassroots group that observes Boston courts, have criticized her practices toward such cases as breaching her commitment. The memo tackles this in a lengthy appendix. It first reaffirms her presumption that “charges on the list of 15 should be declined or dismissed pre-arraignment without conditions.” It then lists other approaches to be employed in certain circumstances that the memo details for each category. These alternatives to declination range from optional meetings with a public health professional (in situations of substance use disorder) and restitution agreements (in larceny cases that don’t involve necessity) to diversion and also arraignment in some circumstances.
  • Drug policy: The memo mentions no exception to the dismissal of marijuana cases. It only allows “public health alternatives outside of the justice system” for possession of drugs other than marijuana, and endorses safe needle exchange and supervised consumption sites. Rollins writes that one reason people are more receptive than in the past to “treatment and services rather than punishment” is that “the demographics of the impacted community have shifted. … The government, law enforcement, and the general publicpossibly because the problem is now impacting them and their communitiessuddenly have compassion and want to label this crisis the health issue it always has been.”
  • Youth justice: The memo announces no policy changes specific to young people. It states a general recognition that the “brain continues to develop until the mid-to-late-twenties” and that it is best for “teenagers and young adults” to “have as little contact with the criminal justice system as possible.”
  • Immigration: Some charges and sentences can trigger severe effects like deportation proceedings. Rollins instructs prosecutors to “factor into all charging and sentencing decisions the potential of immigration consequences.”

Rollins’s reforms come in the wake of other reform memos issued by local and state officials, such as those of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings.

Stated policies only go so far, however. Here, as elsewhere, the impact of reform announcements depends on its implementation, including how loosely and frequently the office invokes carve-outs, and how much deputy prosecutors comply with Rollins’s changes.

Reached for their reaction to Rollins's memo, Court Watch MA pointed me to a Twitter thread in which the group conveys praise and optimism, while also cautioning that the reforms now hinge on factors such as “training, oversight, follow-through.” “What are the consequences if lines ADAs do not follow the policy?” the group asks for instance.