The five candidates for Suffolk District Attorney took similar positions on issues ranging from reducing the number of people who go through the criminal system to protecting law-abiding immigrants from ICE at a forum at English High School sponsored by JP Progressives and the NAACP Monday night.
Instead, they differed on their backgrounds and how that would help them change the DA's office from the mold set over the past 20 years by Dan Conley, who is retiring in January. All five are running for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 4 primary, which will effectively decided the next DA,
One of the few major issues to show a sharp line between the candidates was where to draw the line between young offenders, whom all agreed should be offered every chance at rehabilitation, rather than straight imprisonment, and adults.
Four of the five said they would prefer to see people as old as 25 treated differently than adults, based in part on scientific evidence that young people's brains simply are wired differently.
But Linda Champion said the current cutoff of 18 is fine with her. By that age, she said, everybody should be able to tell the difference between right and wrong - she said her daughter, 16 1/2, can certainly make the distinction.
Three of the five candidates - Evandro Carvalho, Linda Champion and Greg Henning - have worked as prosecutors in the Suffolk County DA's office; Henning had to step down from his job there to run for DA. Rachael Rollins worked as a prosecutor in another county and at the US Attorney's office in Boston. Shannon McAuliffe. was a public defender before going to work at Roca, a non-profit group that seeks to rehabilitate gang members by getting them jobs.
Carvalho, currently in his fourth year as a state representative. He said that as an immigrant who lives in Uphams Corner, he knows the DA's office has to be fundamentally changed, that too many black and brown men are incarcerated by a "broken criminal-justice system." He said that as a state rep, he has been at the forefront of efforts to reform the criminal-justice system and has been the only one fighting for it.
Champion, whose mother was an immigrant, said she would focus on violent and financial crimes - and on protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants.
Henning, who has overseen gang and gun cases at the DA's office, says that his experience teaching for a year at a Hyde Park charter school is part of a career in which he has tried to get beyong prosecution and reach kids and young people before they become criminals. In fact, he pointed to his work teaching three classes - along with coordinating gang cases across the county - as an example of his leadership abilities, although he acknowledged he was a "terrible classroom teacher."
McAuliffe said the "war on crime" and mass incarceration has not worked, in fact, has "made all of us less safe." She said she would end the practice of rewarding prosecutors for racking up convictions and try to figure out how to keep people out of the criminal system to begin with. She said she started her legal career as a public defender in 1990. She noted she was the only one of the candidates to announce her bid before Conley said he was going to retire. "I don't run away from hard," she said. "I run toward hard."
Rollins pointed to her work as legal counsel to three large state agencies - Massport, the MBTA and MassDOT - and said that that makes her the most qualified to run a DA's office with some 300 employees.
Experience provided a brief debate between Champion and Rollins. Champion said she did not think she would have to spend much time overseeing the 150 or so lawyers in the office, that it would be "easy," because they have proven a motivated, well qualified staff. "I want to meet the 150 lawyers you supervised who are easy to work with," she said.
In reaction to Carvalho, McAuliffe said that 28 years fighting for defendants' rights is at least as important as what he's been doing.
Criminal-justice reform bill
All five candidates said they largely supported a criminal-justice reform bill now before Gov. Baker - even Henning, whom WGBH had reported last week opposed the measure - but all five said they would want it to go farther.
McAuliffe said the measure doesn't provide enough resources to prepare inmates for reentry into society, and said she opposes provisions that call for incarceration of people convicted of possession of certain drugs - addicts should be in rehab, not prison. Time behind bars doesn't cure addiction, she said.
Rollins agreed the state should be doing more to prepare inmates for reentry to society.
Carvalho agreed and said he has filed legislation to do just that.
Champion said the bill should have done more to treat people under 21 differently.
Henning said he supports eliminating mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses and taking steps to make it easier for young people who are convicted to find work after their sentences.
Higher incarceration rates among blacks and Latinos than among whites
Henning said "incarcerating fewer people is the goal," through such things as diversion programs, in which certain suspects are sent to treatment or rehab programs rarther than prison.
McAuliffe said she would make ending such disparities a priority, through such steps as bias training for assistant DAs and regular reviews of their work to help reduce the current "systemic racism."
Rollins said both the DA's office and local police departments need more minority employees.
Carvalho said he found himself near tears on a visit to a state prison last month, where he saw minority men "who look like me in prison," when many of them should have been given a second chance, not a prison term. He said he would immediately review the office's current plea and sentencing policies to ensure only hardened criminals are going to jail. "For me, this is a matter of life and death," he said.
Champion called for reform of the current bail system, in which people can sit in jail for more than a year before their cases are even heard. "We cannot keep people in jail when they are not convicted," she said.
Pressures on defendants to plead guilty even if they don't think they are
"We overcharge people," Rollins said.
Carvalho pointed to the current "school zone" provisions of several crimes, in which additional charges can be brought against people for crimes committed near schools, as an example, since pretty much everywhere in Boston is near a school. "It's a tool to incarcerate black men and brown men," he said.
Champion said people who are facing numerous charges can do things they normally wouldn't because of the pressure on them.
McAuliffe said somebody who's been sitting in jail on high bail for a long time might be more likely to plead guilty even if they're innocent - especially if the DA says they'll let them go for time served but if they insist on a trial, the prosecutor will ask for a much longer sentence.
Henning did not directly address the question, but said there's a bottleneck in the system because of the vast number of cases - some 35,000 a year in Suffolk County - and that he would work to reduce the number of cases that come into court, through such things as diversion.
Rights of immigrants
All five candidates said they would not work with ICE on deportaton of immigrants.
Rollins said the current federal policies "do not keep our communities safe," because the discourage people from cooperating with police. "I have been living this stuff," Carvalho said.
Champion said the DA's office has to do more than just not cooperate with ICE - it needs to work with immigrants who are cooperating with law enforcement to get visas that would shield them from possible deporation. Henning agreed, saying he has worked with witnesses to get those visas. He called Trump policies "a disgrace."
Victim and witness protection
Carvalho said some crimes now go unsolved because witnesses don't want to go to police for fear of intimidation by criminals and would seek more money for witness protection. Champion, who said she watched a man die in Roxbury in 2012, said she would work to make the system less traumatic for witnesses.
Henning said that as Boston becomes more and more expensive, it becomes harder to relocate witnesses who need protection and called for creation of dedicated apartment just for housing witnesses. He added he would also seek legislation to keep witness contact information out of police records so that they are not turned over to defendants through their lawyers.
McAuliffe said there is no quick fix, but said witnesses need the kind of trauma services some victims get.
People with mental health in the criminal system
People with mental-health issues should not be in the criminal system, Champion said.
Henning said the criminal system needs to hire additional mental-health professionals to evaluate people facing charges so they don't have to wait in court all day.
McAuliffe said people with mental-health issues do commit crimes, but that the system needs to gear them toward treatment instead of always trying to lock them up. She said she had a client who got in a violent fight with a T bus driver who, as she awaited trial, got into treatment, got support, got a place to live, but then the DA's office insisted she spend six months in jail, which meant she lost all that and was no longer getting better.
Rollins - who said that driver was probably one of hers when she was chief lawyer at the T - said crime victims need to be considered as well, although she said it's wrong to just turn jails into asylums. But she said she would seek to divert people to treatment rather than prison.
Carvalho said 70% of the people in the Suffolk County jails have mental-health problems, called for expansion of mental-health courts, similar to those for teens and veterans, to better deal with their unique issues, and would better train assistant DA's on mental-health issues.