DA candidates seek to capitalize on public desire for new approach to criminal justice

The Topline

Criminal justice reform legislation has yet to emerge from conference committee on Beacon Hill, but many of the ideas the legislature debated in writing their bills are now making their way into District Attorney races across the state. Polling we’ve conducted shows these ideas are popular among large swaths of the public, setting up potentially interesting contests of ideas about how a DA should operate.

The highest profile contest is in Suffolk County. District Attorney Dan Conley’s retirement was surprising, but so is the profile of his would-be successors. One challenger, Shannon McAuliffe, was already winding up for a run even before Conley’s announcement. As a former defense attorney, and head of Chelsea-based ROCA — whose slogan is “Less Jail, More Future — her profile is pretty far from a typical candidate for DA.

State Representative Evandro Carvalho is also in, having switched from running for Linda Dorcena Forry’s State Senate seat. Carvalho is a former prosecutor, but his announcement  struck a very different tone, talking about mass incarceration, treatment instead of prison for drug and mental health problems, and making the DA’s office more transparent and accountable.

As Greg Henning, a former Assistant DA also running, told the Globe, “It probably used to be a plus to be a prosecutor, but now it might be a disadvantage.”

Challengers aren’t waiting for open seats, either. Middlesex County DA Marian Ryan is facing a primary challenger with experience as a both a prosecutor and defense attorney, and who is calling for repealing mandatory minimum sentencing. In Worcester County, a public defender is challenging the incumbent.

The way these races are shaping up reflects what our polling has found. Massachusetts voters are looking to shift the criminal justice system away from a tough-on-crime approach and towards a system that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation. Very few voters favor the continuation of mandatory minimum sentencing, a cornerstone of the system going back decades.

When asked about potentially effective policies, far more gravitate to ideas like job training and reentry assistance for inmates over harsher penalties. More see long stints in jail as counterproductive, as voters fear time in prison can harden non-violent offenders into career criminals. By a wide margin, voters think drug use should be treated more as a health problem than a crime, although they do favor prison over treatment if an addict commits crimes to support their habit.

To a large extent, then, these DA challengers will find a receptive audience for their reform ideas. All of these races are Democratic primaries, meaning the people who will be choosing the DAs will be among the state’s more liberal voters. Particularly in the race to replace Dan Conley, it doesn’t get much more progressive than a Democratic primary in Suffolk County.

Their bigger challenge may be getting voters to pay attention. Many voters don’t really understand what a DA does. So large is this information gap that the ACLU has launched a campaign entitled “What a difference a DA makes.” They polled Massachusetts voters, finding half thought the DA’s impact on the criminal justice system was “minor or insignificant;” 38% did not even know it is an elected position.

This is not entirely voters’ faults. State election records show DA elections are very often uncontested or lightly contested, and incumbents stick around a long time. Voters don’t often get to hear competing visions of what a DA should do.

Candidates face the key challenge of drawing voters’ attention to something they are used to ignoring. But if voters can be made to focus on the contests, they might like what they hear. The polling suggests the public wants a new approach on criminal justice, and elections offer a prime opportunity to explore how such an approach would look.


We have more on the Suffolk DA race this week in The Horse Race, where Gin Dumcius and Jenn Smith joined Lauren and Steve to talk about those and the many other races happening inside Boston. Then our Research Director and “WestMass” correspondent Rich Parr called in to talk about the open seats and races in the Pioneer Valley.

We like our horse race puns, but we think we really outdid ourselves with Suffolk Downing, the title of last week’s episode with former State Senator Ben Downing.

Last week we released our latest polling on transportation sponsored by The Barr Foundation. We’ve posted the key findings, topline, crosstabs, and slides from the event. Or read WBUR’s very thorough summary.

The Crosstabs

The FiveThirtyEight generic ballot puts Democrats ahead at 47 percent, Republicans at 38.

Monmouth University has the spread at 50 percent Democrat, 41 percent Republican.

Read more…

Meet The Authors

Steve Koczela

President, The MassINC Polling Group

Rich Parr

Senior Research Director, The MassINC Polling Group

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