Suffolk County DA Candidates Face Off in Virtual Debate

The two candidates vying for the Suffolk Count district attorney’s seat squared off on Tuesday, June 28, during a virtual debate sponsored by the  Boston Ward 4 and Ward 5 Democratic committees.

Interim DA Kevin Hayden, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in January to finish Rachael Rollins term, faced Boston District 7 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo in the debate moderated by Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University professor at Harvard University, as well as a director of the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics.

The debate’s forum featured a 15-minute “free-flowing” discussion with Hayden, followed by a 30-minute debate between the two candidates. It concluded with a 15-minute discussion with Arroyo.

Asked how he would explain the role of the district attorney to a child, Hayden said the office should be committed to public safety (i.e. keeping communities safe and protecting victims’ rights). Additionally, he said the DA’s office  should ensure that “the criminal legal system continues to operate, expand, and improve in ways that make it fair for all,” as well as to strive to find ways to help communities “reconcile and heal from trauma and harm” via restorative justice.

“It’s something Massachusetts has at times done very well, and something we can currently improve on,” Hayden said of restorative justice.

In response to the same question, Arroyo said the justice system currently doesn’t work, as it has “criminalized poverty” while promoting racial inequality. Instead, the DA’s office “should be seeking justice and accountability, and restoration where appropriate,” he said,  while taking a closer look at racial disparities in the charges levied against individuals, as well as in the punishments they ultimately receive.

Hayden said one of the key leadership lessons he has learned by overseeing the DA’s office and its $24 million annual budget and staff of 300 was instilled in him when he previously served as chair of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board, which is that the money provided is never enough.

In his role as DA, Hayden said he would continue to “make sure resources are focused on people and strategically used “in ways that maximize people power.”

Hayden also said he would seek to staff the DA’s office with staff members who possess a “high caliber of integrity and honesty,” and who understand their roles as “servant leaders.”

On how he would manage and staff the DA’s office, Arroyo said he would seek to hire individuals who are aligned with his values and mission and then “empower” them to do their jobs while refraining from micromanaging them.

As DA, Arroyo said he would attempt to look at justice from a number of different angles, including the perspectives of the victim, the offender, and the community.

Arroyo added that he believes people are innately good, and that when they commit crimes, it’s often because their basic needs aren’t being met.

Regarding the ongoing crisis at Mass and Cass, Hayden recently initiated a policy that redirected $400,000 in funding for “services over sentences” for both pre- and post-arraignment diversion.

“We know we cannot arrest and criminalize our way out of the opioid epidemic, and that’s simply not the solution,” said Hayden, adding that his policy is designed to address individuals at the highest risk and with the highest needs.

Hayden said he believes in taking a case-by-case approach to determine the need for an arraignment. In some cases, the offenders would be better served by just receiving treatment and other services, rather than facing criminal charges, he added.

Arroyo said he had represented individuals living at Mass and Cass when he previously worked as a public defender, so he knows firsthand that “coercive rehabilitation doesn’t work.”

Added Arroyo, “My administration wouldn’t criminalize addiction. Period.”

Arroyo pointed to current flaws in the system where individuals have been pulled out of treatment and remanded to prison for missing a court hearing or some other minor transgression. As a result, individuals often go “off the grid” when they relapse out of fear of going to jail, he added.

In other instances, offenders are faced with a “trick question,” said Arroyo, when given the choice between going to treatment or going to jail. Even if they choose treatment, offenders often end in up in jail in the meantime as they wait for beds to open up, he said.

Arroyo said he would uphold Rollins’ list of around 15 low-level crimes, which the DA’s office would either dismiss or decline to prosecute. In fact, Arroyo said he helped Rollins draft the list itself.

The list could even be expanded to include additional charges, said Arroyo, as determined by the data coming out of district courts.

Hayden said that while his office wouldn’t prosecute low-level offenses, he would look at them on a case-by-case basis, which would focus on the individuals being charged as opposed to their offenses per se.

Although Hayden said he would be willing to look at expand the do-not-prosecute list while reallocating funding to focus on the most violent offenses, he also cautioned “you’re not unclogging the system” by not prosecuting a repeat offender, such as a habitual shoplifter.

“When your alternative is to send them out the door, that doesn’t work,” said Hayden, adding that he would instead aim to provide habitual offenders with “good diversion alternatives.”

Hayden and Arroyo were divided on the matter of gang databases.

Arroyo believes the system, which he describes as “racist and ineffective,” should be “dismantled.”

“It’s important to understand it’s not a crime fighting tool as much as it’s a classification tool,” said Arroyo, adding that gang databases often focus on the clothing that alleged gang members wear, or their associates, as opposed to credible evidence of gang ties. “It documents who you’re around and what you’re doing, but it’s not criminal in nature,” he added.

Arroyo also said he doesn’t believe that the databases, which are shared solely with law enforcement, do anything to deter juveniles from being recruited into gangs.

In contrast, Hayden said the databases are useful in providing outreach to kids in need, as well as for understanding “gang intelligence.”

But Hyden acknowledges that the databases “can’t be overboard, can’t be overreach…and need to be curtailed.”

“At the end of the day, it needs to be narrowly tailored to capture people we know are involved in gang activity,” said Hayden, who added that the databases are built around gang activity and known gang interactions.

Both candidates also answered a series of rapid round, or simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ questions.

Although Arroyo and Hayden both said they would support cash bails, Hayden said he would support efforts to expand Gov. Baker’s wiretapping policy while Arroyo said he wouldn’t support expanded wiretapping in the Commonwealth.

Arroyo and Hayden both said they would support expunging cannabis offenses from criminal records, they were divided when it comes to accepting donations from law enforcement unions, with Hayden saying he would accept them and Arroyo responding with a firm ‘no.’

The DA debate was followed by a virtual discussion with Sandy Zamor-Calixte, who hopes to unseat Steven Tompkins as Suffolk County Sherriff in the Sept. 6 Massachusetts State Primary. Check the next edition of this publication for coverage of this event.

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