Against the backdrop of last year’s Philadelphia district attorney’s race, which drew national attention when an ex-civil rights lawyer with no background as a prosecutor and little support from law enforcement won a decisive victory, a wave of new candidates for top prosecutor positions is emerging, with many vowing to carry the mantle of criminal justice reform, the Boston Globe reports. Consider these three Massachusetts counties: In Suffolk, three candidates for district attorney believe minimum mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders should be repealed. In Middlesex, incumbent Marian Ryan, a Democrat and self-described progressive, has a challenge from her left, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who describes herself as the true liberal in the race. In Worcester, District Attorney Joseph Early, who has run unopposed every four years since he was elected in 2006, faces a defense lawyer who is calling for a citizens advisory board to ensure that prosecutors are being “fair and impartial.”
Amid growing resistance to mass incarceration and racial disparities in prosecutions, district attorney races have taken on prominence. Wealthy donors have made major contributions to reform-minded candidates, and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are lobbying voters to pay attention to low-profile races. “District attorneys will throw their hands up and say ‘We’re not responsible for what society leaves on our doorstep.’ And that’s just not true. They have an important role in reducing those disparities,” said Rahsaan Hall of the American Civil Liberties Union, leader of “What a Difference a DA Makes,” a campaign to raise awareness about the job. Despite the state’s liberal leanings, most Massachusetts district attorneys have a traditional law-and-order philosophy, resisting changes such as limiting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 19. They have faced little, if any, opposition.