“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.
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.”
“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?