FORMER SUFFOLK DISTRICT ATTORNEY Rachael Rollins, now the US attorney for Massachusetts, made headlines for her pledge not to prosecute certain non-violent offenses. Now, Quentin Palfrey, a Democrat running for attorney general, is making a similar vow statewide.
Palfrey, in a new policy platform on criminal justice reform that was shared first with CommonWealth, is pledging he will “[make] innovative use of prosecutorial discretion to decrease prosecution of nonviolent charges that primarily relate to poverty, mental health issues, substance use and social issues that are more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal legal system.”
In practical terms, the prosecution of most of those offenses rests with the county district attorneys. But Palfrey said the attorney general can be a “thought leader” in supporting that approach and collecting and analyzing data to determine the impact of using prosecutorial discretion this way. “The AG can be a big part of that movement,” Palfrey said in an interview.
Palfrey is running in the Democratic primary against labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and former Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell. Liss-Riordan has focused her campaign on her work representing workers against large corporations. Campbell talks often about her lived experience as a Black woman whose family had personal experiences with incarceration. Palfrey has portrayed himself as the most progressive candidate in the race and touted his experience as a government lawyer, working in the Biden and Obama administrations.
In many ways, Palfrey’s criminal justice platform is a wish list of progressive policies. Many of them would need legislative approval and cannot be done by the attorney general alone.
“I think we as a society have lost our way on criminal legal issues,” Palfrey said. “There’s been an overemphasis on arresting and incarcerating and an underemphasis in trying to deal with underlying social challenges.” He is proposing expanding a variety of treatment and community-based programs to focus on diverting people out of the criminal system.
In what would be a major shift should the Legislature agree, Palfrey supports eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. Today, mandatory minimums are mostly applied to offenses like murder, sex crimes, illegal gun possession, and trafficking large amounts of drugs.
“It takes discretion away from judges and decreases the ability of judges to look at specific facts and circumstances when the Legislature sets these rules in advance,” he said. The counter-argument is that mandatory minimums result in uniform sentences for similar offenses, which decreases the opportunity for racial bias in judging. But Palfrey argued that sentencing disparities need to be tackled separately, not with mandatory minimums.
Palfrey also supports progressive calls to eliminate cash bail. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2017 that a judge must consider a person’s ability to pay in setting cash bail. But some have argued that is insufficient to avoid penalizing people for poverty. “The problem we’ve seen with cash bail is it has a very disproportionate impact on low-income people. And your ability to pay for that bail shouldn’t determine whether you’re incarcerated and detained pretrial,” Palfrey said.
Among his potpourri of policy positions: Palfrey opposes the death penalty, which is already not used in Massachusetts. He supports free phone calls for incarcerated people. He opposes treating men civilly confined due to alcohol or substance use in a correctional facility instead of one run by health officials. He would ban long-term solitary confinement. He supports passage of the “Safe Communities Act,” a legislative proposal to limit state and local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. And he would create an advisory panel of formerly incarcerated people to advise the attorney general’s office.
Palfrey supports the opening of safe consumption sites, places people can go to consume illicit drugs under supervision, where they will be treated should they overdose and where they can obtain services like clean needles and referrals to treatment. Under the Trump administration, federal prosecutors vowed to prosecute operators of such sites, but the Biden administration has appeared more open to considering them as a method to reduce the harms of illegal drug use.
Palfrey supports a moratorium on new prison construction, which prison reform advocates have been asking for and which the Democratic-led Legislature has voted for. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a moratorium, citing the need for flexibility in modernizing facilities like the Framingham women’s prison. Palfrey said he is open to talking about modernizing facilities, but he sees building a prison like adding a new lane on a highway. “What transportation people will tell you is if you add a lane, you’ll get more traffic,” Palfrey said.
On police reform, Palfrey supports eliminating qualified immunity – the legal doctrine protecting a public employee from lawsuits for conduct on the job – in cases when a police officer uses excessive force to harm civilians. He also wants the attorney general’s office to maintain a statewide “Brady list,” a list of police officers that were found responsible for dishonesty or fabrication of evidence, information that should be given to defendants when the officer is involved in their case. Now, that information is kept with each district attorney, but counties have uneven policies on maintaining and disclosing those lists. Palfrey said other states, like New Hampshire, have the attorney general maintain the list, which is a better practice because it avoids, for example, names not getting disclosed when officers move between counties.