State Public-safety Chief Urges DA Rollins to Revisit Policies
By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Gov. Charlie Baker’s top public safety official has asked new Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins to reconsider some of the controversial policies she rolled out in a memo last week, including instructions that prosecutors decline, in many cases, to bring drug distribution charges or prosecute misdemeanors like shoplifting.
Public Safety Secretary Thomas Turco, a Baker appointee, wrote a two-page letter to Rollins on Thursday asking the independently elected district attorney to consider “appropriate revisions” to six specific policies, many having to do with the prosecution of drug crimes.
The letter marks a rare incursion by Gov. Charlie Baker and his team on the discretionary prosecution of crimes by a district attorney at a time when Baker is pushing legislation to toughen the state’s driving-under-the-influence laws and give judges broader discretion to hold defendants who may be a threat to the community.
Turco said the administration agrees with Rollins’s view that the criminal justice system is “ill equipped to solve social problems,” and that mental health, substance abuse and poverty are problems that can’t be solved through prosecution.
“I am concerned, however, that a number of your Office’s newly announced policies do not reflect the careful balance struck in the criminal justice reform bill between reducing unintended long-term consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system and government’s continuing responsibility to ensure public safety,” Turco said.
Rollins published a 65-page memo last week codifying many of the reforms she campaigned on last summer and fall to reduce prison sentences and the address the racially and socially inequitable administration of justice.
One of those reforms is to no longer prosecute certain misdemeanor crimes like trespassing, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, larceny marijuana possession and minor in possession of alcohol.
Turco, however, said many of those crimes often make repeated victims out of business owners in economically challenged neighborhoods.
Rollins also laid out very strict criteria for when her prosecutors should proceed with possession with intent to distribute charges that Turco worried could interfere with law enforcement efforts to disrupt drug distribution networks or bring charges against dealers before their drugs get into the hands of someone struggling with addiction.
“Several of the policies announced in the Memo would, if implemented as proposed, put at risk the commonwealth’s ongoing efforts to combat the ongoing crisis of the opioid epidemic and substantially restrict the government’s ability to protect victims threatened with serious crimes,” Turco said.
“As the elected District Attorney of Suffolk County, I represent the interests of people who overwhelmingly voted for the bold changes I’ve made,” Rollins said in response to Turco. “Secretary Turco may not answer to the electorate that I do, but I welcome his input all the same. That’s why I was sure to provide him with a copy of my memo last week. There is no question that working together we can improve public policy while protecting public safety, and I would gladly have taken his call.
She added, “I’m excited that the Secretary shares my commitment to addressing and preventing the violent crime that overwhelmingly affects Black and Brown people in Suffolk County. My prosecutors distinguish between petty offenses and serious criminal conduct every single day, and I’d be happy to address his hypothetical concerns with some of our real world experience anytime he wants to pick up the phone.”
The Baker administration did not comment on the district attorney’s directive to staff that they notify her or her top aides if anyone sees Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arresting or questioning defendants in or near the courthouse.
Instead, the secretary focused on the prosecution of drug crimes as well as Rollins’s presumptive limit on the review of a defendant’s criminal history to 36 months and her discouragement of requests to the court for conditions of pre-trial release such as stay-away orders, GPS monitoring, and substance abuse testing.
Turco took issue with both those policies, as well as the instruction not to prosecute someone for operating a motor vehicle with a license that has been suspended for refusing to take a breath test.
The latter rule, Turco said, would “undermine our drunk driving laws and make our roads more dangerous,” while the former would preclude persons charged with crimes against children from being ordered and monitored to stay away from playgrounds or gang members from being kept out of rival neighborhoods.