The five Democratic candidates for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s post touted their records and tried to distinguish themselves from their largely liberal cohort last week at a Hibernian Hall debate tackling a range of criminal justice issues.
Amidst a national reckoning with the state of the criminal justice system and broad moves to reform it on the state level, Evandro Carvalho, Linda Champion, Greg Henning, Shannon McAuliffe, and Rachael Rollins are seeking the Democratic nomination in the primary election on Sept. 4.
After 16 years in office, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley is stepping down, leaving an opening that has drawn a crowded field of candidates with arrays of prosecutorial and defense experience.
No one is running as a Republican in the race, but Michael Maloney, a Brockton-based lawyer, is seeking the seat as an unenrolled (independent) candidate. He will be on the November ballot along with the winner of the Democratic primary.
In the hour-and-a- half debate last Thursday, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, moderator Callie Crossley of WGBH probed the five candidates about their backgrounds and stated commitments toward reshaping the county’s law enforcement office.
Rollins, a former state and federal prosecutor and legal counsel for the MBTA and Massport, was asked how she reconciles her history as a prosecutor enforcing immigration policies with the reform platform on which she is running.
“I’m trying to run so that I can make policies for this state that are consistent with what the Legislature and the voters have said,” Rollins answered. “With respect to my progressive record, I’ve sued the police for racial discrimination, I have sued the state on behalf of veterans, I have put sexual predators in jail, and I’m one of the first members of the civil rights unit at the US attorney’s office.”
Henning, a prosecutor out of the district attorney’s office as former head of the gang unit, fielded a question on using tactics to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses, including threatening to report witnesses as unfit parents or subpoenaing witnesses who could be at risk in open court.
Answering that he never threatened parents with removing their children, Henning said he has used subpoenas to bring witnesses to the stand, which is sometimes required “to protect public safety.”
As director of Roca, a nonprofit that works with high-risk youths in the criminal justice system, McAuliffe was asked about critiques that the group failed to listen to feedback from communities of color.
When Roca came to Boston, McAuliffe said, it wasn’t “as artful as we certainly could have been and didn’t listen and learn in the way that we should have.” She noted the diverse background of Roca’s staff and said, “I believe that the DA’s office should be an office that mirrors the community it serves, with at least 40 percent diversity.”
All the candidates said there should be increased efforts to ensure that voices from communities of color are represented in the office’s priorities.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m the white guy up here,” Henning said. “I can’t say i represent the communities by the way that I look, and I can’t say that I have the same shared experience… so working with people to surround myself with individuals that have those experiences and can inform those conversations is important and essential.”
Crossley asked Champion, a former Suffolk prosecutor who now works as assistant general counsel for the state’s Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund, about her stance that 18- and 19-year-olds should be prosecuted as adults despite their brains not being fully developed and the idea that their being incarcerated with adults increases the likelihood of reoffending or committing violent crime?
In answering, the candidate highlighted work on bail reform and programming to redirect youths from the criminal justice system, and said that young offenders should be dealt with individually. But she added, “I will prosecute anyone over the age of 18 because they are an adult. They have the right to vote, they have the right to go to war, they have the right to participate in making decisions.”
With more than 100 lawyers working in the Suffolk DA’s office, the DA faces a hefty managerial challenge. State Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a former Suffolk prosecutor, cited his experience facing that task in the DA’s office and at the State House.
“When I was ADA in West Roxbury, I had managing skills,” he said. “I trained and mentored young ADAs in the office; I’ve been a state representative for four years, and I’ve managed my office at the State House. What we do for our own is about values. It’s about leadership. It’s about bringing people together to improve our communities. That’s what this is about.”
A lightning round revealed some clear delineations between two groups of candidates at the forum. While all agreed that the office had contributed to racial disparities in incarceration, and all pledged to increase transparency, Henning and Champion’s stances set them apart from the other three candidates on a number of progressive platforms: They do not support the elimination of cash bail, commit to doubling diversion of juvenile and adult cases, or support abolishing mandatory minimum sentences aside from murder.
In a call to the Reporter on Tuesday morning, Maloney said he was in the midst of a two-week homicide trial and could not attend the ACLU debate. He said he was “very, very fired up” and added that he plans to participate in future debates as the campaign progresses.