A first-of-its-kind voter education campaign launched today in Massachusetts, highlighting the key role the Commonwealth’s District Attorneys play in determining the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system.
The “What a Difference a DA Makes” campaign released a video describing its mission and goals, including seeking to build voter awareness on the life-changing power wielded by district attorneys, and how voters can hold DAs accountable to encourage them to make fair and just decisions.
“Massachusetts, it’s time to hold DAs accountable to our high standards,” Rahsaan Hall, the head of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ racial justice program and What a Difference a DA Makes campaign manager, says in the video. “It’s time to use our voices – and our vote – to make our criminal legal system fairer for everyone. That’s why today the ACLU of Massachusetts is launching its ‘What a Difference a DA Makes’ campaign.”
The campaign also offered its rubric for a report card to grade the effectiveness and fairness of the eleven elected District Attorneys and their offices.
The report card’s top subject areas include: Transparency, Accountability, Fairness, Racial Justice, Law Reform, Community Engagement and Fiscal Integrity. Each of the report card’s subject areas are known through research and community feedback to be key components of a fair, functioning and effective DA’s office. The “What a Difference a DA Makes” campaign’s evaluation will be based on publicly available information received from the offices’ responses to public records requests, media, and a review of cases.
“We know from focus groups, polling and community feedback that large numbers of voters in the state are unaware of the major role DAs play in keeping our system fair and those who have opinions about our justice system see it as in need of key reforms,” said Hall. “That has to change.”
A poll released in July showed that fewer than half (48 percent) of Massachusetts voters think the state’s criminal justice system is working, with huge majorities of all races and ideologies believing that the criminal justice system works differently for different people.
According to the poll results, Massachusetts voters broadly agree that there is a race and income bias in the criminal justice system. Eighty-eight percent of voters think Massachusetts should work to change the criminal justice system so that people are not treated differently based on who they know – and 84 percent of voters think Massachusetts should work to change the criminal justice system so that people are not treated differently based on their race.
Voters’ attitudes about the criminal justice system were affected when informed about the major impact district attorneys have on how the criminal justice system works. Nearly eight-in-ten (79 percent of) voters say a commitment to racial justice is an important quality of a candidate for district attorney – more than experience as a prosecutor at 65 percent.
The data also shows that people have limited knowledge of district attorneys’ power, budgets, and that they are essentially only accountable to the voters. Half of the registered voters believe individual district attorneys have only a minor or insignificant impact on the functioning of the criminal justice system – and almost half of voters (38 percent) did not know that district attorneys are elected and accountable only to voters.
After hearing facts and messages about the every day impact District Attorneys can have on individual lives and in communities, 81 percent of voters said they are more likely to pay attention to their local District Attorney race.
“That is the goal of our campaign—to inform and educate voters so they are more aware and engaged in their local District Attorney campaigns,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “For far too long, the system has given preference to the connected and the wealthy, and voters must start to feel there is more racial justice and fairness in our criminal justice system or our system will be broken beyond repair.”
The poll, conducted by Anderson Robbins Research, interviewed by telephone 618 Massachusetts registered voters. The statewide telephone survey was preceded and informed by two focus groups.