Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: New Suffolk County DA is a bold advocate for criminal justice reform

Recently elected Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Thursday that she plans to follow through on her campaign stance to decline prosecuting 15 crimes. The list of crimes includes relatively minor offenses, such as trespassing and minor in possession of alcohol, but also includes the more serious offense of drug possession with intent to distribute.

Under Rollins’ proposed system, these cases would either be dismissed outright before arraignment, or treated as a civil infraction whereby community service, restitution or community engagement — such as job training or schooling — would suffice as the consequence.

In exceptional circumstances, the line DA must request approval from their supervisor when prosecution of the charge is deemed warrantable, under Rollins’ proposed system.

While Rollins’ progressive stance might not seem revolutionary in Suffolk County, the progressive county that houses Boston, it is nevertheless revolutionary. The current mindset in the United States is changing, but there is an ingrained, hard-line stance surrounding “law and order.”

As a country, we hold almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, yet we make up only a little more than 4 percent of the total world population.

The District Attorney’s job does not typically involve advocacy for criminal justice reform. How often do citizens even think about their District Attorney? And how many can name theirs?

It is important to note the distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes that Rollins is making. By eliminating costly prosecutions, resources can be better spent investigating and trying more serious, violent offenders.

In 2015, the average annual cost spent on each inmate in Massachusetts was $55,170. Imprisonment due to illegal drug use overwhelms correctional facilities’ limited resources, creating crowded environments that are worse for both the prisoners and society.

This does not mean that perpetrators of nonviolent, lesser offenses will evade consequences. Rather, the consequences they face will be more conducive to reducing recidivism rates.

Some may argue that reducing the potential severity of the punishment for a minor offense will increase the prevalence of such crime. However, if anything, it would decrease crime because the consequence would be rehabilitative, not punitive, and help move offenders away from crime.

Additionally, there is a systemic cycle that sends individuals from marginalized communities to prison for nonviolent crimes. Sending someone to jail can kickstart the cyclical process of a life in and out of prison, and prisons do not do enough to prevent those who have committed crime from becoming lifelong criminals.

In 2014, the three-year recidivism rate for inmates released from the state’s Department of Correction was 32 percent, which included violations of parole and probation.

Rollins would help reduce future criminal activity by mitigating the cycle of imprisonment.

For crimes relating to illegal drug use — especially of opioids — treatment is a much better alternative to imprisonment. However, state-owned rehabilitation programs do not receive enough funding.

While Massachusetts has increased spending on guards and security in prisons, allocating money to education, reentry programs and other rehabilitation efforts has decreased or stayed the same, according to a report by MassINC.

Rollins alone cannot solve the systemic and exorbitant criminalization of drug offenders, which has faced scrutiny because of the opioid epidemic, and compromise with law enforcement is a must.

In a recent interview with the Boston Herald, Rollins said she is open to negotiating the crimes on the “no prosecute” list and vowed to seek out the opinions and involvement of law enforcement throughout the process.

Her intent to work with law enforcement is crucial. Working with police officers — who are knowledgeable about the communities they serve — would be constructive, and such an alliance will hopefully result in more effective policy.

Rollins’ actions would set a precedent in Suffolk County that could spread to the rest of the state, and perhaps the rest of the country. Establishing rules to pursue consequences other than prosecution for low-level offenses establishes positive decriminalization trends in criminal justice reform.

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