On Tuesday night, as Ayanna Pressley was trouncing Rep. Michael E. Capuano (Mass.) in a Democratic primary and making Boston political history, Rachael Rollins was holding a celebration of her own.
The 47-year-old lawyer, who ran on ending “mass incarceration” and cutting off relations between Boston and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, won the Democratic primary for district attorney of Suffolk County in a rout, leading her closest rival by 16 points. If Rollins defeats her independent opponent in a general election that has no GOP candidate, the county’s nearly 800,000 residents will have a chief prosecutor intent on remaking the criminal justice system. No more cash bail. No more civil asset forfeiture. No more racial disparity in who does and doesn’t go to jail.
“I believe there are certain things we’re just going to reject,” Rollins said in an interview before the primary. “I think there are certain charges that I don’t want to prosecute any longer. Those are overwhelmingly the charges that fall on the mentally ill and those with substance abuse disorder.”
Rollins, who spent just $230,000 on her campaign, is the latest in a string of reform-minded candidates who will be district attorneys in deep-blue cities — places that, for years, elected Democrats who ran on “law and order” platforms. The effort to elect them, which began before the 2016 election but has accelerated, has succeeded in Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis and failed in some other blue cities. But it’s created a blueprint for electing reformist prosecutors and for shaping their agendas.
The first victory in the campaign came in early 2016, when George Soros plunked $300,000 into a PAC created to elect Kim Foxx as the state’s attorney of Cook County, Ill. Foxx won the Democratic primary, tantamount to election in the deep-blue county, proving that the investments, in races that sometimes attracted little money or attention, could work.
In 2017, a larger coalition came together behind Larry Krasner, a defense attorney running in Philadelphia after suing the city’s police force 75 times. He won the Democratic primary, then the general election, despite being opposed by the city’s police union and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In office, within months, Krasner put together an agenda for the district attorney’s office designed “to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.” Among his policies: stop prosecuting people accused of marijuana possession, stop prosecuting sex workers with less than three offenses and start requiring prosecutors to justify the cost of long-term incarceration when they seek it.
“It’s a dream come true for those of us who’ve been fighting our hearts out for justice reform for years,” civil rights activist Shaun King wrote in The Intercept.
King had just co-founded a political PAC, Real Justice, designed to elect more Larry Krasners. With a fraction of the money sloshing around the PACs devoted to House and Senate races, King and other co-founders, like the digital organizer Becky Bond, offered a form of “distributed organizing” for reformist candidates. In many cases, those candidates were going up against incumbents or front-runners backed by police unions, local Democratic Parties and the prison industry.
The early results were encouraging. In Texas’s March primaries, Real Justice fell just short in a Dallas County race but got a victory in San Antonio’s Bexar County. The PAC’s next big projects were in California, where four deep-blue counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Sacramento and San Diego — were electing or nominating new prosecutors. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stumped in the state to raise awareness of the campaign; Krasner himself trekked across the country to endorse the candidates.
“When you exist as a movement of islands around the country, you need more islands,” Krasner said this summer in an interview, before heading to California. “If this is a national movement, it’s going to be borne out by more wins in more places, especially in big jurisdictions. So, naturally, I’m supportive of like-minded candidates.”
In June, all but one candidate — Contra Costa’s Diana Becton — went down to defeat. It was a bracing moment for the movement, as attacks that had faltered elsewhere, starting with accusations of outsiders trying to interfere in local elections, seemed to stick.
“When you talk to progressive voters, terms like ‘mass incarceration’ and ‘the school-to-prison pipeline’ — those are terms we all understand,” said Noah Phillips, the attorney who lost in Sacramento. “They need to resonate with moderate voters, too. They will once we do the work and they understand.”
The Real Justice-backed candidate in Alameda County, Pamela Price, encountered many of the same problems. Over one day in late May, The Washington Post observed her campaign, from an office where Krasner’s memo was printed on the walls, to a canvass where Price knocked on doors, to a house party where a diverse crowd heard her talk about changing the criminal justice system. Asked about the incumbent’s attacks on her funding, Price scoffed.
“Soros has come and leveled the playing field, and so has Real Justice,” Price said. “You don’t think it’s fair, huh? You thought it was going to be great, to have an unfair advantage?”
But at the doors, it was clear that some voters who considered themselves liberal Democrats were unready to back a reformist district attorney. Price spent close to 20 minutes with one voter who had complained to the city about a nearby house that was being squatted in by drug dealers; Price could not quite convince her that focusing on treatment instead of incarceration would keep her neighborhood safe.
After the election, Price said she was surprised to see Alameda County — anchored by the left-wing bastions of Oakland and Berkeley and rattled by police shootings — stick with the old system
“We are one of the most progressive counties in the country, and we have one of the most regressive justice systems,” Price said. “Soros isn’t the real story. The real story is the police money that came in from across the state to stop us. The real story is who owns our criminal justice system. Mr. Soros doesn’t own the system, they do.”
King was also floored by the defeats. “We thought it would matter that Hillary Clinton won those counties,” he said this summer. “And that didn’t transfer at all to these races. Moderates and whites will band together to oppose Trump or elect a mayor. But when it comes to the criminal justice system, in some places, they vote like conservatives.”
In that interview, and in a memo he wrote later in June, King suggested that the lessons of California were to start earlier and to emphasize that criminal justice reform was more fiscally responsible than the status quo — a message that had clicked for Krasner, but not for other candidates.
By the end of summer, the movement seemed to regain its footing. In Missouri’s August primary, Ferguson City Councilman Wesley Bell ousted St. Louis County’s longtime prosecutor in a race colored by the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer. And in the run-up to Sept. 4, the campaign for Rollins in Boston seemed to be coming together. She had a five-way primary, a compelling story and eventually the endorsement of the Boston Globe.
“I’ve represented the police. I’ve sued the police. I’ve gone to drug-rehab graduations, where we hope this is the one that really takes — and then, despair,” Rollins said before the election. “We need a fighter in this role, someone who’s a grown-up.”
Rollins’s answer to the problem that had dogged defeated candidates was similar — that prosecuting nonviolent crime stretched resources that could be keeping people safe. But in Boston, the message clicked.
“The crime they see on TV is violent crime, and that’s the crime I believe we need to focus on,” Rollins said. “What they’re not seeing is that the overwhelming resources of the DA’s office are not focused on those crimes; they’re focused on the property crimes, the trespassing, loitering. Well, over 50-60 percent of the matters the office has focused on is crimes of addiction, crimes where the root cause is someone having a mental illness.”