Rachael Rollins is the latest candidate to join the field vying to replace Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley in the midst of a broader push for criminal justice overhaul. With posts in prosecution, defense, management, private practice, advocacy and advocacy under her belt, Rollins is promising to uphold the public safety priorities of the office while advocating for just outcomes for all those who pass through it.
In a breakfast interview at Sweet Life in Lower Mills, the biracial Cambridge native talked about the balance of embracing the Boston area for what it is and recognizing room for improvement if she were to take the top law enforcement post in the county.
“What I love about this possible opportunity to be the district attorney,” she said, “is to have somebody in the role who recognizes that when people enter the criminal justice system, it is often on their worst day or because of the worst thing that has happened in their life thus far.”
She calls for a criminal justice system that reflects the diversity of the population it serves, and criminalization should not be the response to addiction, poverty, and mental illness. It is perfectly possible, Rollins said, to keep communities safe and also be clear-eyed about the circumstances that bring many into contact with the system.
“I am a person that will always be prepared, but equity and fairness is just pulsating in my veins,” she said. “I believe in criminal matters, justice is not necessarily a win or loss, a conviction or a not guilty. It’s more of an outcome.”
The 47-year-old Rollins points to an extensive resume. She worked at the National Labor Relations Board, Bingham McCutchen LLP and Seyfarth Shaw LLP and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston as a federal prosecutor serving first under Michael Sullivan and later Carmen Ortiz. She worked as general counsel for the MBTA— the MBTA Police Association has endorsed her for the DA post— and Massachusetts Department of Transportation. She became the first person of color to serve as chief legal counsel at the Massachusetts Port Authority in Sept. 2013, leading the legal department until July 2015.
Her experience leading the sprawling legal departments at the state level sets her up to successfully manage the 275 people that work in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, Rollins said, “the vast majority of whom… are doing outstanding work every day, hard work, thankless work.”
Add to that her former presidency of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association from 2012 to 2013 and the work she still does as chair of redress for the Boston branch of the NAACP.
Her professional range of viewpoints matters, Rollins says, as she isn’t hemmed in to view victims or perpetrators of crimes through only one lens. And there are areas of the district attorney’s operations where she sees room for change.
With officer-involved shootings, the district attorney’s office investigates. Though the people investigating are “upstanding, exceptional lawyers,” the relationship between the office and the police department is “still too close” for that to be an acceptable protocol, Rollins said. She proposes a group of outside individuals that would conduct investigation in those cases and report directly to the District Attorney.
After commuting to work in Suffolk County every day, Rollins recently moved her permanent residence from her longtime home in Medford, which is in Middlesex County, to Roxbury. Candidates must live in the district they hope to represent on the day of the election. When her daughter and two nieces finish up the school year, they will join her there, Rollins says.
Rollins pulled papers on March 9 to join the race, facing off with three other Democrats openly running so far: state Rep. Evandro Carvalho, of Dorchester; Greg Henning, of Dorchester, who led the Suffolk district attorney’s office gang unit and has worked in the office for about a decade; and Shannon McAuliffe, of the North End, who was director of Chelsea-based ROCA, which works with gang-involved youth.
Still mulling a run are Boston City Councillor At-Large Michael Flaherty, of South Boston, and Mayor Martin Walsh’s chief legal counsel Eugene O’Flaherty, of Charlestown.
No Republican has yet entered the race. All the Democratic candidates will be on the primary ballot on Sept. 4.
Rollins brings the mentality of a lifelong athlete to the race. She is competitive and focused on building the most capable department, maintaining strong partnerships with community and public safety stakeholders to accomplish her equity and enforcement goals.
“The number one charge of the district attorney in my eyes is the safety of the community and advocating for victims, period.” she said. “And if you don’t have somebody who is comfortable saying that, I don’t believe they are qualified to do the job.”