Suffolk County DA Rachel Rollins More Suited To Be Chief Public Defender, Not Chief County Prosecutor

I have a major issue with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins.  I believe that this new District Attorney – an elected position whose job it is to be the chief prosecutor for Suffolk County – is acting in ways that are contrary to the responsibilities of that office, and contrary to the interests of public safety.

Before I explain why, a little primer on the operational structure of the criminal court system in Massachusetts:  Courts in Massachusetts, both District Courts and Superior Courts, are organized by county.  There are 14 counties in this state, running from Berkshire County, Hampshire County and Hampden County in western-most part of the state, to Barnstable County, Dukes County and Nantucket Counties in the eastern-most parts of the state.  These counties vary in size and political demographics, with Middlesex County having the largest population (approximately 1,500,000) and Nantucket County the smallest population (approximately 10,000).

Criminal cases in each county are prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office in that county.  While those cases are in everyday practice prosecuted by dozens of appointed Assistant District Attorneys in each county, the District Attorney is an elected position:  He or she is, whether they like to say so or not, a politician who runs for elected office.  The DA is the chief prosecutor in each county, even though almost none of the elected DA’s actually tries cases in court.  Nonetheless, each elected DA is the figurehead for that particular county District Attorney’s office.  Their job responsibility is singular:  Prosecute persons who have either been arrested, indicted, or otherwise charged with criminal offenses in that county.  Their jobs are to ensure public safety and public order.  Indeed, reflecting this public responsibility, they are by state statute considered law enforcement officers.

Balancing the criminal justice system, on the other side of the aisle are private criminal defense attorneys, such as myself, and public defense attorneys, who are state employees and who defend criminal defendants that cannot afford to hire a private attorney.  These public defense attorneys are alternatively called “public defenders”, “bar advocates”, “court appointed attorneys”, or “public counsel”.  Those titles all mean the same thing and can be generally called “public defenders”.  Public defenders work for a state agency called the Committee for Public Counsel Services – this is the state agency that hires, supervises, and pays public defenders.  Public defenders are assigned to courts across the state, organized by county, and their job is to defend criminal defendants.   Just as each elected District Attorney is the chief prosecutor for that office, there is a chief Public Defender in Massachusetts: That person’s title is Chief Counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. That is how criminal cases are prosecuted and defended in Massachusetts:  District Attorneys prosecute criminal cases, and either private attorneys or public defenders defend criminal defendants.  That is how the criminal justice system is balanced.

But as a Boston criminal defense lawyer, it’s my opinion that at least in Suffolk County Massachusetts, that system has become imbalanced – and unsafe to the public.  In Part two of this post, I’ll explain why.

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