ACLU criminal justice reform campaign takes aim at district attorneys

Set to launch voter education campaign

Yawu Miller | 7/19/2017, 10:11 a.m.

District attorneys, including Suffolk County’s Dan Conley, have spoken out against the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Prosecutors have long favored the sentencing guidelines as a tool to pressure criminal defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges. Blacks and Latinos represent 20 percent of the state’s population, but 40 percent of those incarcerated on drug offenses and 75 percent of those serving mandatory minimum sentences.

Conley was appointed Suffolk County District Attorney in 2002 to replace Ralph Martin, who left office for the private sector. Conley then was elected to the post in 2004, beating challengers Eddie Jenkins and Brian Honan, but has not faced a significant electoral challenge since then.

The ACLU poll found that Massachusetts voters currently have limited knowledge of the power and budgets of district attorneys, and few realize that DAs are accountable only to voters, with little in the way of checks and balances in between elections. Half of the registered voters polled said they believe individual district attorneys have only a minor or insignificant impact on the functioning of the criminal justice system. Almost four in ten did not know that district attorneys are elected and accountable only to voters. After hearing facts about the impact that district attorneys can have on individual lives and communities, 81 percent of voters say they are more likely to pay attention to their local district attorney race in 2018.

Rose said the ACLU campaign could spark renewed interest in the office.

“Maybe it could prompt someone who is sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “They may throw their hat in the ring.”