September 17, 2018

A lot has changed in the last three decades: hairstyles, technology, popular music. Another change? There’s been a move – especially since the start of the failed war on drugs, also in the early 1980s – for criminal law reform. Over-incarceration, glaring racial disparities in our criminal legal system, and little accountability for law enforcement officials have provoked conversations about repealing mandatory minimums, ending cash bail, and creating transparency in DA offices. Nationally, new district attorneys in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis County are rethinking the so-called “tough-on-crime” policies. In Massachusetts, polled voters broadly agree that the Commonwealth needs to fix its criminal justice system. Fewer than half said they think the state’s criminal justice system is working, with huge majorities believing that it works differently for different people.

The voter turnout on primary day – from Boston to the Berkshires – shows that when voters are given a real choice on the ballot and given the information they need about candidates’ records and positions, they will get involved and show up at the polls. In fact, there was a 35 percent increase in ballots cast for DA in Suffolk County, a 16 percent increase in Middlesex County, and a 123 percent increase in Berkshire County.

We’re proud that the “What a Difference a DA Makes” campaign has contributed to a meaningful conversation about the enormous power DAs wield and how best to hold them accountable to the communities they serve. But the work doesn’t stop with the primary election: Again in November, voters will have the opportunity to send a clear message of support for a criminal legal system that works for everyone.

District attorneys are accountable only to us – the public and voters. There’s a lot we can do to hold them accountable to the values that matter to us: We can court watch, write letters to the editor to alert neighbors to DA decisions, demand transparency, request community meetings, and engage our neighbors in action. But most importantly, a fairer criminal legal system begins with our vote for district attorney.

For the first time since 1982, residents in the five contested Massachusetts districts – and many of the uncontested districts – are involved in a public discussion about where district attorney candidates – and incumbents – stand on issues of over- incarceration, racial disparities, mandatory minimums, cash bail, transparency, and more.

To learn more about who’s on your ballot this November, click here.

District attorneys have the power to change the system, and voters have the power to change district attorneys.

Written by Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program, and campaign manager for the What a Difference a DA Makes campaign.

 

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