Usually it is district attorneys who get to question those in trouble with the law: What were you doing on this night? Why did you commit the act? Are you remorseful?
However, the tables were turned at a debate for six candidates trying to become Boston's chief prosecutor. The unusual scene took place at a county jail, and the interrogators were inmates in prison attire. Some wore blue, some wore brown, and some wore orange, depending on the status of their respective cases.
The questions they asked the six prospective prosecutors reveals a deep level of insider knowledge about the criminal justice system. Examples of their questions include:
- Why are inmates pressured to take plea bargains instead of going to trial?
- Should undocumented women be deported for nonviolent convictions?
- Because the number of geriatric inmates continues to increase, do you support medical marijuana in jail?
Siting within feet of the candidates without handcuffs or other restraints, the inmates closely listened as each candidate attempted to portray themselves as fair-minded. After it was all over, the inmates were excited for the opportunity to participate in this critical aspect of democracy.
Eric Miller, age 46 and accused of unlawful possession of a firearm, said he “hopes our voices are heard.” Miller asked the candidates about justice and says misfortune is the reason many inmates end up facing charges.
Organized by the American Civil Liberties Union and the local sheriff's department, the debate was held at the Suffolk County House of Correction. The event was billed as the first political debate in Suffolk County to take place inside a jail. Five Democrats and one Independent were grilled by inmates about why they are seeking to become the next district attorney for an area that covers Boston and three surrounding communities.
Because police shootings and the exploding drug crisis frequently make national headlines, the A.C.L.U. designed the debate to highlight the job of district attorney. Udi Ofer, a lawyer and deputy national political director of the A.C.L.U., said “This forum happening in a city jail in front of people who are incarcerated represents the growing focus nationwide on holding prosecutors accountable.”
According to Mr. Offer, “Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system. They exercise tremendous discretion and have enormous power — they decide who to charge, what kind of charges to bring, what plea deals to offer.”
Steven Tompkins, the Suffolk County sheriff, said the debate was an extended part of his efforts to engage the inmates in civic discourse. Thompkins said that of the 1,000 inmates in the house of correction, 42% have a mental illness condition and 70% have an alcohol or drug problem. Speaking about these inmates, Thompkins said, “These are folks who should be somewhere else.” He also added that if inmates are committing crimes that further their illness or addiction, the system would need to reconsider how to treat them.
Inmates attended the debate as volunteers, with the 14 men and 11 women being separated on each side of the room. All of the inmates who attended the debate are registered to vote.
Most of the candidates tried to relate their life experiences to those of the inmates.
Linda Champion, a lawyer, described herself as a former homeless teenager who struggled growing up with an immigrant mother who had suffered abuse from her father. She told the inmates, “I look out at all of you and understand the dilemmas you face.”
Rachael Rollins, a lawyer who is the oldest of five siblings, talked about how three of her siblings had been in prison. Rollins said, “I don't look at you as defendants, like some up here.” She also made particular note of a call she received earlier in the morning informing her that a cousin had passed away from an overdose.
Evandro Carvalho, a state representative, talked about his criminal record and how he was arrested at the age of 17. Directly addressing the inmates, Carvalho said, “When will you have another opportunity to elect someone that has these experiences?”
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