On Thursday, June 7 at the historic Hibernian Hall in the heart of Roxbury, the What a Difference a DA Makes public education campaign will host the first of many district attorney candidate debates.
The race for the Suffolk County District Attorney has generated significant interest: six candidates on the November ballot, engaging forums across the district, and several news headlines. You might ask: why so much interest in what candidates for DA have to say? Because in Massachusetts, 77 percent of district attorney races have been uncontested over the last 20 years. That means there has been little to no public discussion of where the candidates stand on issues of racist policing, mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, criminal law reform, or other issues that impact our lives and the lives of our neighbors.
Uncontested races deny Massachusetts residents the benefit of an informed debate. The absence of opposition results in unchallenged DA candidates who are not questioned on their values, policy positions, or prosecution priorities. Candidates arrive in office as the DA with no mandates to accomplish any stated goals, no say from the people on prosecution priorities, and no input from the people most directly impacted by the DA’s office policies and practices.
Without public debate on the issues, it’s difficult to hold district attorneys accountable. If a candidate for DA never has to say where they stand on the issue of racial disparities in incarceration rates, it’s nearly impossible to hold them accountable for failing to address it. If a candidate is not asked about their position on diverting people who struggle with addiction into treatment instead of jail, advocates have a harder time trying to persuade them to do so once in office. The absence of public debate leaves the platform of any DA candidate shrouded in mystery and lacking transparency.
In the five months since we launched this campaign, we’ve heard it loud and clear: Massachusetts residents are motivated by what they have learned about the role, power, and influence of district attorneys – and they are looking for change.
After our first debate on June 7, we will collaborate with our broad network of partners to host DA candidate debates in the six counties with contested elections. (Yes, of the 11 district attorney districts, six have contested races.) At these debates, we encourage residents to listen to what the candidates have to say about everything from bail, charging, and sentencing decisions to racial justice, juvenile justice and drug diversion.
Are they a candidate who talks about your neighbors and community in a way that demonstrates their sincere interest in your collective wellbeing, or do they use language that shames residents who live in challenging circumstances? Do they talk about public safety through the antiquated lens of being tough on crime, or do they present evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and community investments that will keep the public safe? Will they acknowledge the power and influence the position has on the legislature and commit to using it for reform, or will they continue to oppose reforms in an effort to retain their power?
One of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system – one that few people have even heard about – will be pressed on their stances and challenged on their answers. We will make sure that the public has the opportunity to hear from them and where they stand on important issues so that you know what a difference a DA makes.