Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins unexpectedly ignited a firestorm in local legal circles last week with her comments broadly criticizing public defenders in Massachusetts as “overwhelmingly privileged.”
But after the backlash spread from social media to the pages of The Boston Globe, the progressive prosecutor — who won office on a platform of making the justice system more equitable — is trying to make amends with the people who generally support her agenda.
“We all want justice to be served, and for everyone who comes to us to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness,” she wrote in a letter Wednesday to two local public defense lawyer groups.
It was a noticeable shift in tone from the prior week.
The controversy began during Rollins’s appearance last Thursday on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” after a caller named James from Webster complained that his publicly appointed defense lawyer hadn’t called him back. While trials have been postponed during the coronavirus outbreak, Rollins did give him some advice on getting in touch with her office, before they moved on to another caller.
But after a defense lawyer from the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Service called in to the show to say that a defendant shouldn’t be advised to contact a district attorney’s office for help, Rollins got frustrated and argued that she was only trying to provide information to a desperate-sounding individual.
“I’ve called your number, and people aren’t returning my calls,” she said. “What I’m not going to do is let people suffer in silence. We’re not going to try to jump in and represent anyone, but my office is answering calls because I’m demanding it.”
In response, the lawyer went on to argue that the state has a well-documented shortage of public defenders, particularly in Western Massachusetts. But to Rollins, the issue was not that public defenders are overworked, but overly privileged.
“There’s this premise out here that somehow people who are public defenders are the heroes and the DA’s are the villains,” she said, after WGBH Jim Braude (who had sided with Rollins) said he was getting “inundated” with emails from defense lawyers who said her advice to James was inappropriate. “I am not going to allow that to continue any longer.”
Rollins went on to say that she often hears from “black, brown, and poor” defendants that they were “treated poorly” by their lawyers, though she did acknowledge that they are underpaid and understaffed. Rollins said she had even advocated for pay raises for CPCS lawyers, but said their urgency often doesn’t match the needs of their clients.
“When you hear in my voice my disgust or outrage about CPCS not calling people back — it’s their overwhelmingly privileged staff that aren’t calling back poor, black, and brown people because they’re saying they’re overworked and busy,” Rollins said, adding that the staff lacks diversity.
“Is this a rainbow coalition of people who are representing these individuals? I have no problem looking at my own diversity and saying in my one year of leadership, ‘What have I done to diversify my staff?’ But I refuse to try to pretend like this is Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King working for CPCS right now.”
Rollins said she didn’t want to “vilify all of them,” but said she was speaking from “personal experience,” including with the defense lawyer for one of her brothers during a court appearance in Middlesex County in 2018.
That didn’t quell the outrage from defense lawyers. As the Globe reported Tuesday, many took to social media through the weekend to protest her remarks.
“Thank you for undermining my work,” Jim Corbo, a CPCS attorney in Brockton, tweeted.
“The comments you made about CPCS and about me as a public defender were so incredibly offensive – I’m shocked,” another public defender from Boston, who said she campaigned for Rollins, tweeted.
“What @DARollins did was paint a broad brush across an entire profession based, at least in part, on a personal slight that she experienced during the campaign,” Michael Tumposky, another defense lawyer, added. “We should expect more from our elected officials.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for CPCS, even responded in a public letter saying that Rollins’s “insults” hit “directly at the heart of our organization.”
— Bob McGovern (@BobMcGovernJr) May 1, 2020
While commending Rollins for — uncharacteristically for a prosecutor — working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with CPCS on major issues like decarceration, Benedetti wrote that her comments “needlessly denigrated an entire population of attorneys to an audience that may not know what we do every day.” He also said Rollins “alienated” hard-working lawyers who represent the poor clients for whom her office has tried to reform the system.
“These unprovoked attacks on your fellow attorneys did not go unnoticed, and I am afraid you may have alienated some who believed in your campaign promises and then found themselves in the crosshairs of an off the cuff diatribe,” Benedetti wrote.
In the immediate wake of the backlash, Rollin held firm — responding to much of the criticism directly from her Twitter account.
“CPCS isn’t the victim here, James is,” she wrote in one tweet, adding that the “most frequent complaint I received as counsel for NAACP was public defenders not returning client or family calls.”
Rollins told Globe columnist Adrian Walker in an interview Thursday that she even tried calling the CPCS phone line and encountered a voicemail that was full. In his letter, Benedetti noted that CPCS is still trying to “adjust to these difficult times” in the midst of the pandemic. He also asked that, next time, Rollins reach out with her concerns rather than assail the agency over the radio.
And on Wednesday, she did.
“I simply wanted to help James contact his attorney,” Rollins wrote in her letter to Benedetti and Victoria Kelleher, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, striking a more conciliatory — if not apologetic — tone.
“I should have made clearer in the moment that my response to James was never directed at, or intended for, the overwhelming majority of court-appointed lawyers who work tirelessly for their clients: accepting every collect call, working around the clock, speaking to families and loved ones, and currently putting themselves in harm’s way every time they visit a correctional facility to service their clients,” she continued. “CPCA attorneys and bar counsel are hardworking public servants who are committed to advocating on behalf of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. I know this in my core.”
Rollins noted that she has “strongly advocated” for increasing the CPCS budget and reached out to the agency for input on “urgent matters.” Especially in the midst of the pandemic, she pledged to work together on common goals. And “in spots that are more rocky unstable,” Rollins asked for “open and honest communication.”
“I value your input,” she wrote. “I have been inclusive of CPCS in ways my predecessors and fellow district attorneys would have never imagined and actively still frown upon. And I will continue to do so because our missions are often aligned and our success — justice — is linked.”