The politics of prosecutors in Massachusetts this year is a complicated mess, but one that overall bodes ill for reform in the state. Between the primaries this month and the general election in November, at least six out of 11 district attorney seats are being challenged.
Suffolk County’s election is perhaps the most significant. It contains Boston, the only major city in the state, and the kinds of crimes that police routinely prioritize, like drugs and petty thefts, as well as violence, are most visible in big cities. Lowall, for example, a much smaller city in Middlesex County, has about half Boston’s rate of reported violent crime.
After DA Rachael Rollins, a high-profile reformer, propelled herself from the Boston job to US Attorney with Biden’s help, Governor Charlie Baker (R) replaced her in January with Kevin Hayden, a veteran prosecutor with an old-school ideology. Hayden has rolled back any of the meaningful progressive policies—such as declining to prosecute nonviolent misdemeanors—that Rollins implemented. Hayden has also been accused of covering up a police misconduct case.
Meanwhile Massachusetts’ only current progressive prosecutor, DA Andrea Harrington in Berkshire, is playing defense.
Challenger Ricardo Arroyo wants to go back to the Rollins era, but there’s a problem: He was arrested, but not convicted, for sexual assault as a high schooler. The case was dropped and he asserts that nothing happened, but it’s a major drag on his candidacy in a strongly left-leaning city. Comparable accusations have unraveled similar progressive candidates in both Boston and San Francisco in the last few years, and Arroyo will almost certainly lose.
Meanwhile Massachusetts’ only current progressive prosecutor, DA Andrea Harrington in Berkshire, is playing defense. Like Rollins, she declines to prosecute certain low-level charges and has eliminated cash bail for lesser charges. Her challenger, Timothy Shigrue, complains that her administration “dismisses all minor drug cases” and that local police are angry about it, as if that is a conclusive argument. It should be a close race, as Harrington’s last election was close and she has not experienced any scandals in her first term.
So where are the bright spots for reformers? Probably not Essex County, where both candidates to replace conservative DA Jonathan Blodgett are virtually indistinguishable, despite one being a criminal defense attorney and the other a cop. The former even unironically uses the phrase “bad guys” to describe those arrested on low-level charges, in opposing blanket non-prosecution policies.
Shannon McMahon, running for Bristol County DA, may seem like a progressive to the uninitiated. She is propping up recovery courts as the solution to petty crimes. But that is only because the incumbent, Thomas Quinn, is so retrograde that he won’t actively support that tepid and typically even harmful reform.
Just four years ago, Rollins’ election seemed to typify a new era of hope. That seems like ancient history now.
The only real progressive who has a shot seems to be former ACLU attorney Rahsaan Hall, whose platform includes accountability, racial justice and harm reduction themes. But is Plymouth County—second only to Bristol County in terms of Trump’s 2020 vote share, in a bright blue state—ready to hop from Republican Timothy Cruz all the way to a civil rights attorney as top prosecutor? Unfortunately, I would not hold my breath.
Just four years ago, Rollins’ election seemed to typify a new era of hope for decarceration and racial justice in Massachusetts and beyond. That seems like ancient history now. A recent wave of defeats and oustings of reform prosecutors across the United States can be interpreted as a backlash to widespread demands for radical change following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, with rightwingers exploiting fears of crime to install carceral DAs.
The situation in Massachusetts, a traditional bastion of liberal voters, is now emblematic of this. Massachusetts seems destined for the past as future: a relatively low incarceration rate, but also callous DAs creating massive structural injustices while being enabled by a detached political elite.
After November, the state’s slate of DAs will almost surely be ideologically the same, overall, as during the time of Department of Public Health Drug Abuse lab chemist Annie Dookhan’s scandal 10 years ago that caused thousands of wrongful convictions. The settlement for Dookhan’s prosecutor-enabled behavior came with a $14 million price tag. The cost of this year’s elections for thousands of Massachusetts’ most marginalized people is likely to be far higher.
Image by Peter Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0