The Massachusetts legislative session just ended, with mixed results on issues dear to our community. We at JCRC were pleased with many aspects of the budget and the economic development bill, but we (and our partners in the immigration advocacy community) were sorely disappointed at the failure to adopt basic protections for immigrants being targeted in our community. And yet, on another issue of deep concern to our community, criminal justice reform, we celebrated the passage of the most significant and far-reaching state legislation in years. With our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and the ACLU, we were greatly encouraged to see many of our own priorities (as determined by the JCRC Council – our representative body on behalf of our 43 member organizations) enshrined into law. And as with all other legislative victories, we knew that monitoring implementation of the new law would be critical in achieving justice that has been long delayed for so many in our community.
The ability of this new law to deliver a just criminal justice system hinges on a person whose influence is not universally understood: the District Attorney. And now, for the first time in recent memory, six of our eleven Massachusetts DA elections are contested and potentially decisive primary elections, scheduled for September 4th: only 18 days away.
So, those of us who have worked so hard for criminal justice reform are encouraging our community to become educated on this critical role, and to choose our candidates wisely.
Despite what we tend to believe about the determinative power of judges in our criminal legal system, a recent Boston Globe op-ed said that in fact:
“Prosecutors wield near absolute power. They determine which and how many criminal charges to file, with a grand jury typically rubber stamping the charges. Prosecutors then decide whether to offer a plea bargain and dictate its conditions. Given that more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through pleas rather than trials, these choices by prosecutors effectively determine the outcome of the vast of majority criminal cases, even if judges nominally oversee the entry of the plea."
That amount of power in any one person’s hand should draw our attention, especially because we live in the shadow of decades of “tough-on-crime” laws that have prioritized mass incarceration over rehabilitation. Now more than ever, we need our DAs to be our partners in ensuring that our criminal justice system is truly just.
Here are some steps you can take to be a fully informed voter on this vital issue:
- Review the key issues for the candidates running in your county (and perhaps remind yourself what county you vote in – for example: Boston is Suffolk; Cambridge, Lexington, and Newton are Middlesex; Brookline is Norfolk – find your county here). Check out the ACLU voters guides for Suffolk County, Middlesex County, and the rest here. JCRC Councilmember Kathy Weinman has collected all of the candidates’ websites in a great blog post.
- See the candidates in person. If you belong to a congregation that’s a member of GBIO, come to the Suffolk and Middlesex candidate forum that they’re hosting on August 23rd at the Boston Teachers' Union in Dorchester (reach out to our organizer Ben Poor for more information).
- Learn more about what a DA does. You can attend the CourtWatch training on August 21st at Temple Israel in Boston, hosted by members of various congregations advocating for Criminal Justice Reform (anyone is welcome). Court watching is a way to hold DAs accountable by attending court hearings and documenting what happens. You don't need any previous experience to come to the training, only a desire to hold judges and prosecutors accountable for fairness and equity.
As I head into the voting booth on September 4th, I’ll be thinking about the public servants who are charged with implementing the laws we work so hard to pass, and about the importance of having the fairest DAs – who will ensure public safety while also advancing a system that is equitable and just.