Shannon McAuliffe wants to bring a sea change to the culture in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. She is calling for a reduced emphasis on winning prosecutions at all costs and a shifted focus to strategically redirecting at-risk individuals from the criminal justice system.
“It’s time to ensure that the color of your skin, your zip code, and your income doesn’t determine your fate in prosecution, and it has for too long,” she said in an interview with the Reporter.
McAuliffe was the first to pull papers for the seat, and that was before District Attorney Dan Conley announced he would be not be seeking re-election. Endorsed by Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, she now faces a crowded field of Democrats aiming for the county’s top prosecutorial post.
In the interview at the Sugar Bowl ice cream and coffee shop on Dorchester Avenue, the 49-year-old McAuliffe, who grew up in Southern California with a single mother who was the third generation of McAuliffe’s family to have children in their late teens, reflected on her two decades of reform work.
“I came from some pretty humble beginnings,” she notes, with two of her mother’s siblings suffering from severe addictions. “So I think that gave me the predisposition to really want to be part of systems that work for people and work to build people, because it’s so easy for systems to work against people.”
After graduating from the University of San Diego, McAuliffe worked with a public defender’s office in Seattle through a Jesuit-run volunteer center. “I saw people lose their cars, I saw people lose their houses, their jobs. I saw them lose everything,” she said. “And I thought that, really, I want to be part of making an unfair system fair for people.”
That pursuit of fairness drove McAuliffe to Suffolk Law School, with the sole goal of becoming a public defender. Immediately after graduating, she began work as a federal defender in San Diego. She stayed there for two years, then returned to Boston for a two-year period at the Day Pitney LLP law firm while she paid off student loans. She then worked as a state public defender for the next 12 years.
The injustice “baked into every part of the process” rankled her, McAuliffe said. She tried to push for change in her capacity as a public defender. (She notes that having legal experience in the county she hopes to serve as district attorney is vital, even without prosecutorial experience), but after more than a decade, she was getting discouraged.
Ideally, no one intentionally comes at any prosecution trying to be racist or classist, McAuliffe said, “but the systemic racism and injustice out in the world starts playing out in the courtroom.”
After her husband, Richard Egbert, a prominent Boston defense attorney, died suddenly 10 years ago, McAuliffe reassessed the state of her life and her calling. She pursued a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2012, then, in 2015, she started work at Roca, a Chelsea-based nonprofit that works with gang- and court-involved high-risk young men “who had been hurt by a lot of systems” to redirect them from the system and onto sustainable paths to employment and stability.
In two years under McAuliffe’s leadership, Roca’s Boston site saw no arrest or new charges for 79 percent of the program’s long-term participants, according to the program’s website. Although she carved out pockets of strategic advocacy where she could, “I thought I could really change the system one courtroom at a time, and then recognized that I couldn’t,” she said. “The power of the prosecutor and the culture of the office was just too strong for it.”
She started thinking about running for district attorney about a year ago, and took out papers on Feb 21. McAuliffe highlights bail reform as a top priority, calling for changes to the cash bail system that she says effectively works to ensure jail time before a defendant has been convicted because they cannot afford bail. Mandatory minimums are over-relied upon and should also be revisited, she said.
“Violent offenses and heinous crimes need to be dealt with in a certain way,” she said.” That’s something that the Suffolk County district attorney’s office knows how to do. That’s not the change I’m talking about. The change I’m talking about is, instead of the large destructive net, casting a smart, strategic one so the right people go to jail for the right reasons for the right amount of time, and the people who don’t need to go to jail can actually be lifted up and out in a different way. We need to start doing that.”