On Tuesday, May 28th, the Boston Globe published a virulently racist op-ed by Barnstable County’s District Attorney. Though he didn’t mention her by name, the op-ed targeted Suffolk County’s District Attorney, Rachael Rollins.
This op-ed was one of many attacks on Rollins because she is a Black woman in a position of power threatening the status quo system designed to over-police, over-prosecute, and over-punish Black and Brown people. In a busy field of potential candidates, Suffolk County residents voted overwhelmingly for the most progressive candidate because of the changes DA Rollins committed to making: reducing racial disparities, rates of prosecution, and incarceration.
As soon as DA Rollins announced policies to formalize her campaign promises, critics have cried out that the sky is falling and that public safety in the Commonwealth is in jeopardy, with no evidence to back up their claims.
The loudest attacks have come from the EOPSS Secretary and the Barnstable County DA: two white Republican men with horrendous track records for their racist treatment of the residents they represent and the people under their control. Rollins has spoken publicly about the need for prosecutors to take responsibility for the intergenerational harm caused by contact with the criminal punishment system. Those attacking Rollins are intentionally masking the real power of district attorneys because they want to conduct business as usual without public scrutiny.
Make no mistake, critics of decarceration have an agenda—to continue aggressively policing, prosecuting, and punishing Black and Brown people.
CourtWatch MA is an accountability project, and for us, data is key. O’Keefe brags about being a “professional prosecutor” in the Boston Globe. If he wants to establish his credentials, he should release all of his prosecution data immediately. The limited data that are publicly accessible show that under O’Keefe’s leadership, Barnstable County boasted the absolute worst racial disparities in pre-trial detention of any Massachusetts jurisdiction—with Black people comprising 2.4% of the population but 25% of people jailed pre-trial.
O’keefe relies on dangerous, racist tropes to demonize Black communities and justify decades-old practices that target Black and Brown people. The Globe should have rejected his piece. His bald, biased assertions are patently false.
MYTH: Racial disparities in the criminal legal system are an inevitable result of degenerate communities and different offending patterns.
FACT: That’s racist. Racial disparities are caused by individual and structural racial bias in policing, prosecution, and judicial decision-making, not the behavior of Black and Brown people.
Research overwhelmingly shows that racial disparities in the criminal punishment system result from system actors, not from differences in individual behavior or community values.
O’Keefe employs overt stereotypes to shame and blame Black and Brown communities. His racist assault on DA Rollins uses language harkening back to the Moynihan Report that blamed Black mothers for a “ghetto culture,” criminalized poverty, and ushered in decades of expansion of police, prosecutors, and prisons.
Far too many prosecutors around the country continue to demonize people of color as inherently “violent” and “criminal” in order to justify their ever-expanding power to surveil, control, and punish, and to absolve themselves of responsibility for racial disparities in the criminal punishment system. These prosecutors blame Black communities for “moral failings” instead of recognizing the role of intentional state policy, and especially their own role, in creating and reinforcing toxicity, trauma, and structural racism. Even those who recognize that poor communities of color have been systematically deprived of resources use that fact to explain crime, not criminalization, policing, and prosecution. Suffolk County voters created a mandate for DA Rollins to push back on these narratives and confront decades of failed policies from the war on drugs and the war on poor communities of color.
MYTH: We have “the right people” in prison and prison keeps communities safe.
District attorneys often argue that sentencing people to jail and prison is necessary to keep communities safe. Research shows that terms of incarceration create trauma, harm, and do not prevent crime.
While Massachusetts has a low rate of incarceration relative to other states, we still incarcerate more people here than most countries around the world and we have among the highest racial disparities in incarceration. The idea that we have the right people in prison is therefore also racist.
Tens of thousands more people are harmed by the criminal punishment system every year, including many thousands who don’t end up in prison. In 2017, there were more than 62,000 pre-trial admissions and releases from Massachusetts jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, roughly 61,000 people are on probation in Massachusetts.
Incarceration is harmful and destroys all of the elements that contribute to a safe community. Public safety policy should enable people to access safe and supportive housing, treatment, healthcare, employment, and education. Traditional prosecutions make us less safe because open cases, incarceration, and criminal records are barriers between people and what they need to live well. Again: prison is only a piece of this. Putting people in jail pre-trial disrupts their lives and livelihoods: family responsibilities; education; employment; housing; medical care; caretaking obligations; social relationships. Even when people are able to post bail, that money would otherwise have paid bills or expenses, setting people back financially for years at a time. And as DA Rollins recognizes, the collateral consequences of criminal records set up barriers that people and their families struggle for the rest of their lives to surmount.
As she laid out in The Rollins Memo, a vast body of research supports DA Rollins’ policies for harm reduction and a public health approach, particularly with respect to drug use. On the other hand, O’Keefe’s punitive approach has fueled the opioid crisis rather than prevented deaths in his county. O’Keefe refuses to contend with the mountains of research that DA Rollins has used to inform her policies, and residents of his county will continue to suffer for it.
Over-policed and over-prosecuted communities recognize the need for community-led solutions. Effective drug treatment cannot be forced treatment; court-run diversion programs that threaten to punish people when they misstep create harm through conditions that set people up to fail. We must move funding for programs out of the courts and into communities.
MYTH: District attorneys don’t have an agenda.
O’Keefe writes, “District attorneys should pursue justice for their communities without any predetermined agenda.” But O’Keefe has an agenda: locking up as many Black and Brown people as he can; criminalizing poverty and drug use; ignoring research in order to flaunt a toxic retributivism that does not keep communities safe; and using pre-trial incarceration to coerce pleas. District attorneys emphasize convictions because fear is a powerful motivator for voters and because the entire system would screech to a halt if prosecutors could not force pleas: roughly 97% of all criminal cases end in pleas.
District Attorneys decide who to charge with what crimes and whose cases to dismiss. All prosecution is discretionary, and therefore all prosecution is political.
MYTH: “The criminal justice system is reactive not proactive. It deals with those who are brought to it.”
Many people live in communities where they can go a whole day without seeing a cop car with its lights on. In other places, predominantly poor Black and Brown neighborhoods, people see cop cars and police cameras from their front doorstep. This isn’t by accident. Where police patrol and what they’re looking for is a direct result of policy and intentional distribution of resources, all governed primarily by white law enforcement officials and lawmakers.
Government data track arrests, prosecutions, and sentences. We have no way to track actual rates of human behavior. Many people “break the law” every day - but only certain people get labeled criminals, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to incarceration when they do so. What is defined as a crime and who is considered a criminal are not natural categories – they’re legal and social constructions.
Prosecutors have the capacity to be a check on the racial bias of policing by not prosecuting every case in which someone is summonsed or arrested. Instead what they tend to do is overcharge, request high bails, disparately charge mandatory minimum offenses against people of color, and enhance sentencing to force plea deals and get convictions.
The role of the criminal punishment system in our country is to maintain the social and racial order. No matter how much they try to deny their power, prosecutors play a critical role in making sure white wealthy people keep their privilege while people of color and poor people are punished.
MYTH: District attorneys do not make laws. They just prosecute people for breaking them, quietly and without fanfare.
District attorneys do not do their work silently and leave lawmaking to lawmakers. DAs use their discretion in enforcing the law and also create law by lobbying legislatures.
District attorney associations are some of the biggest spenders and loudest voices in criminal law lobbying. DA associations work hard to prevent reform. Advocates sat through hours of testimony by Massachusetts District Attorneys opposing the hugely popular criminal justice reform omnibus bill in 2018. Now conservative DAs are once again using their massive public platform to rail against progressive policies with fear tactics and racist stereotypes.
O’Keefe disingenuously asserts that prosecutors quietly do their work without fanfare; voices like his obviously are being heard, in his case in an op-ed published in the Boston Globe which features a picture of him leading a press conference.
It is a shame the Boston Globe chose to publish an op-ed riddled with lies and racism - including claims that DA Rollins is unqualified. The time when white male politicians can get away with blaming Black and Brown communities for mass incarceration, and when a major publication glorifies that viewpoint with a spot on its op-ed page, should be over. DA Rollins was elected in a landslide as a qualified lawyer and Black woman who represents her community and her constituents' vision for Suffolk County.
CourtWatchMA stands in solidarity with communities continuing to demand fewer prosecutions and less incarceration. Shame on the Boston Globe for publishing a racist smear with no basis in fact.
Court Watch MA is a community project with the goal of shifting the power dynamics in our courtrooms by exposing the decisions judges and prosecutors make about neighbors every day.