The Rollins Memo – Local Lessons

I don’t believe accountability has to equal incarceration. There are many ways that we can hold people accountable without putting them in jail.” – Rachel Rollins, Suffolk County DA

Thus opens the Rollins Memo, released a few weeks ago on March 26, 2019. Rachel Rollins was elected as District Attorney of Suffolk County, the Massachusetts county that includes Boston, less than a year ago. Since then she’s been carefully researching, compiling data and engaging with her constituents to develop a new model for prosecutorial justice in Suffolk County. The result is the Rollins Memo; a beautifully produced, carefully worded, substantially innovative series of policies designed to serve as a model for communities everywhere.

Even ours.

Criminal justice reform is a hot topic these days. And not just for progressives either. Reform of the criminal justice system has become a bipartisan interest, appealing to liberals because they are concerned about the treatment of vulnerable people by current criminal justice policies, and conservatives who are looking for more fiscally conservative policies and less government overreach. Surprisingly, reforms to the existing criminal justice system have the potential to meet the needs and interests of both groups.

The appeal to the conservative base was highlighted when, in December 2018, Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act, a “commonsense” reform intended to “make our justice system fairer.” (quotes taken from a White House fact sheet issued April 1, 2019.) Said Mr. Trump of the First Step Act, “Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.” Not Mr. Trump’s usual tone, but we’ll take it.

Interestingly, conservative Shasta County participated in a nationwide movement to bring more diversity into the role of District Attorney, when Stephanie Bridgett was selected as DA by Shasta County supervisors in 2017. American DA’s have historically been overwhelmingly white and male and it’s still somewhat rare to find a woman in charge of prosecution. In fact, a 2015 study study found that nationwide, only 17% of DA’s were female, and only 1% were women of color. Of course Rachel Rollins is both a woman and a person of color, a true unicorn in prosecutorial politics. But the Rollins Memo is more than a manifesto by one of the first black female DA’s in the country, it’s a simple comprehensive model for a new way of looking at justice.

Emily Bazilon, the author of Charged, the new Movement to Transform Prosecution and End American Mass Incarceration, discusses in a recent Fresh Air interview how so called “broken windows policing”, which began in the ’80s, is no longer seen as effective. This approach to policing and prosecuting focuses on punishing “quality of life” crimes, in order to reduce the incidence of more significant crimes as well. But these lower level “quality of life” crimes such as public intoxication, sleeping outside, disturbing the peace and loitering are often caused or exacerbated by social situations such as homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues or often, a combination of these.

Rachel Rollins writes:

I identified 15 charges that in most cases are best addressed through diversion or declined for prosecution entirely. In addition to being low level, non-violent offenses with minimal long-term impact, they are most commonly driven by poverty, substance use disorder, mental health issues, trauma histories, housing or food insecurity, and other social problems rather than specific malicious intent. (emphasis added)

. . . .curtailing the use of prosecution, probation, and incarceration to address them will dramatically reduce the application of criminal justice resources to issues better addressed through treatment, services, job training, and education.”

And again:

Mental illness, substance use, and the wide spectrum of co-occurring disorders are distinct medical conditions that require specifically tailored treatment and services rather than punishment.

Arrest and incarceration are not effective solutions for substance use disorders. Our office is committed to identifying and seeking the expansion of a proper continuum of community-based mental illness and substance use disorder treatment providers so that when people in crisis are brought to us by our law enforcement partners (and ideally before that), properly matched treatment programs will be in place so that our staff can defer and decline prosecution in all possible cases involving mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

The scarcity of accessible, affordable treatment options for persons diagnosed or struggling with mental illness and substance use disorder has unfairly left police and prosecutors across the country with responsibilities that go far beyond their traditional training, expertise, and mandate. Using traditional public safety resources to address complex public health problems hasn’t just deprived individuals of the appropriate rehabilitative services. It’s relegated too many people with untreated mental illness and substance use disorders to the criminal justice system, contributed to mass incarceration, and destabilized communities by incarcerating caregivers and wage-earners.” (emphasis added)

These excerpts bring to mind the recent local high profile arrest, prosecution and sentencing of Jeffrey Patrick Smerber, a kind of case model for one aspect of Shasta County’s current approach to criminal justice. Smerber was identified as a “chronic offender” after being charged with 108 infraction citations and 13 misdemeanor charges including public intoxication, indecent exposure, and use of alcohol in a city park. I don’t know Mr. Smerber myself, but the charges against him leads one to believe he has an alcohol problem. His bail was set at $130,000, (an astronomical amount given the lack of danger he posed to society) and he was quickly sentenced to more than a year in jail.

I have no doubt that his crimes impacted the quality of life of some Redding citizens, not to mention his own quality of life. But it’s hard to imagine that incarcerating him for a year will solve the problem. And since the average cost to incarcerate an inmate for one year in America is just over $31,000, we may be be spending the equivalent of a year of University of California tuition just to keep Smerber out of our parks and off our streets for a few hundred days.

Yes we’ve held him accountable, but at what cost have we chosen incarceration as the means? The funds we spend on arresting, charging, arraigning, and sentencing low level offenders are funds we can’t spend on a sobering center, medical respite, housing options and mental health services. And this matters, because the problems we refer to in Redding as “quality of life crimes” are systemic problems.

The Rollins Memo tells us that by pursuing arrests and convictions to solve them, we’re inadvertently contributing to the problem, not only because we’ve failed to address the root cause of the offenses, but because the arrests and convictions themselves, exacerbate those root causes. From the Rollins Memo: It is well-established historically that convictions can adversely affect employment opportunities, housing options, and create other barriers to economic and social success.” (emphasis added)

So while the Redding City Council desperately squeezes money from a tight budget for “public safety” (read: more cops on the streets), we might find we’ve been using our limited funds to buy a whole lot of Band-Aids; tools incapable of responding to society’s deep wounds. In the process, we’ve asked law enforcement to take on new risks and new vulnerabilities to protect our “quality of life”. Meanwhile, despite more sweeps, arrests, and short-term sentences, root problems continue to fester on our streets.

What if we viewed public safety more broadly, and included the whole public? What if we pushed more of our limited funds towards long-term solutions instead of short-term corrections?

Perhaps the Rollins Memo is worth a read?

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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15 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    A step in the right direction. Thanks.

  2. Avatar Tim says:

    I am all for decriminalizing drug use – it, in itself, is a victimless crime. But when substance abuse leads to actual crime with actual victims, you cannot then ask for additional leniency.

    If a drunk gets behind the wheel and winds up killing someone in a collision, we judge them more harshly than if they were sober – and rightly so.

  3. Thank you, Annelise, for the research and work you invested in this important piece.

    Obviously, what Shasta County is currently doing with regard to arrests and incarceration is not working. I hope that our L.E. leaders will take note of this piece, and consider changing the way they do things, for the good of us all.

  4. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Some food for serious thought . . well worth the read. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking information.

  5. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I’ve long felt that we should send people to jail because we’re afraid of them, not because we’re mad at them.

  6. Avatar Candace C says:

    Criminal justice reform that applies both common sense and compassion in accountability for low level “quality of life crimes” in the hopes of improving the offenders life to further stave off continued crimes rather than a revolving door to a “hot and a cot” with no behavioral change certainly sounds like a win/win to me.

  7. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I hate being cynical, but I’ve lived in Shastanistan for well over two decades and it’s always struck me that the locals aren’t open to much beyond the law of retribution. More cops, more jail cells—they see it as the only solution.

    If Uncle Joe Biden becomes the Demo nominee, I’ll throw up in my mouth a little when I vote for him. I’ll never forgive him for the tough-on-crime legislation that irreversibly ruined the lives of a generation of impoverished youth.

    • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

      Steve, Shastanistan will vote for the Republican nominee for president but the 43 solid Democrat districts in California will give the Democrat candidate the state’s vote. No matter who the president is will make little difference in Shastanistan which has it’s own local political problems dealing with Bethel Town.

  8. Avatar Candace C says:

    Steven, I believe your cynicism stems from realism. All one needs to do is peruse one of our local online neighborhood watch sites and people’s frustration with our current property crime, etc. epidemic quickly turns to vigilante justice. Whether or not it’s just people blowing off steam or actually carrying out their threats against the real or imagined perpetrators, it’s still very concerning – and dangerous. I’m a “local” and I abhor mob mentality and blanket “lock ‘em up” mentality and all that that implies. Sadly it seems I may be in the minority. I hope that changes.

  9. Avatar Doug Cook says:

    Though provoking article. You mentioned that the average cost of incarceration in the country is $31,000 a year. In California the average cost for a state prisoner is over $70,000 a year. More incentive to keep these folks in a more cost effective system. However, who’s to say that Mr Server wants to become sober. We can’t force sobriety on someone.

  10. Avatar Chris Solberg says:

    “These excerpts bring to mind the recent local high profile arrest, prosecution and sentencing of Jeffrey Patrick Smerber, a kind of case model for one aspect of Shasta County’s current approach to criminal justice. Smerber was identified as a “chronic offender” after being charged with 108 infraction citations and 13 misdemeanor charges including public intoxication, indecent exposure, and use of alcohol in a city park.”

    Ive seen Mr Smerber and im very familiar with the usual circumstances of his and others going about their day to day operations year after year as they line up in the morning waiting for the Parkview market to open its doors so they can purchase a 40. cross the street and lay around the lawn of City Hall in circles that have been going on for years.

    As bartenders who serve to much alcohol to a patron and then are held libel should they cause damage or death driving, Hold Parkview, Safeway, and the other gas marts on South Market accountable by establishing a list with photos and stop selling these folks the poison that is destroying their lives.

    • Avatar Doug Cook says:

      So Mr Smerber has no responsibility for his actions and the poor life decisions he has made? It is Safeways fault he is a drunk?