Suffolk County’s reform candidate for District Attorney (DA) said declining to prosecute lower-level crimes would advance racial and economic justice. Police lobbies warned of chaos. Newly published records obtained by the ACLU show then-candidate Rachael Rollins was right—ending the prosecution of low-level crimes would disproportionately benefit Black people. Crucially, the data also show that her plan isn’t such a radical departure from the prior DA’s charging patterns.

During the 2018 electoral campaign for Suffolk County District Attorney, Rollins took a bold step that may have secured her the Democratic Party nomination, and later, the seat. Following other progressive-minded reform DA candidates like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Rollins released a list of 15 misdemeanors and low-level felonies that, if elected, her office would “decline to prosecute.” Her pledge was hailed by progressives and criminal legal reform advocates, but sharply criticized by police lobby groups and others in law enforcement.

In fact, data from DA Dan Conley’s term in office reveal that Rollins’ plan won’t mark a sea change for the Suffolk County DA’s Office. The data show that over half of the charges Rollins has indicated her office will decline to prosecute were dismissed under Conley.

The revelation that DA Conley dismissed more than half of these types of low-level cases comes in a new report by the ACLU of Massachusetts, Facts Over Fear: The benefits of declining to prosecute misdemeanor and low-level felony offenses. The analysis uses empirical data to evaluate how, over a two-year period, DA Conley prosecuted people in Suffolk County for the low-level offenses Rollins has indicated her office will decline to prosecute.

The information, obtained by Boston resident Carol Pryor through a public records request and shared with the ACLU, is a list of every charge processed to a disposition by the office in 2013 and 2014. The records include race information about the people charged.

The report has two main findings:

1. DA Rollins’ plan addresses racial inequity in the criminal legal system.

The data indicates that if DA Rollins fulfills her campaign promise to decline to prosecute these 15 lower-level offenses, it will have a disproportionately positive impact on Black people in Suffolk County, who during Conley’s time in office were disproportionately charged with the misdemeanors and low-level felonies DA Rollins has pledged not to prosecute.

For example, under Conley, Black people were three times more likely to be charged with disorderly conduct or trespassing than white people, per capita. In some geographic jurisdictions of the Boston Municipal Court system, the disparities were even starker.

Racial disparities in charging data suggest racial bias in policing practices. Declining to prosecute misdemeanors and low-level felonies can be a check on racially disparate policing.

In the map above, mouse over a division of the Boston Municipal Court (BMC) system to learn more about the cases or charges processed in that division. Select the “Ratio of Black to White People” view to see how many more times Black people were likely to be arrested and charged with a driving, trespassing or drug possession with intent offense, compared to white people. This map shows per capita racial breakdowns by BMC district.

2. DA Conley dismissed most cases involving one of the offenses Rollins has said her office won’t prosecute.

“Decline to Prosecute” cases—or cases that contain at least one decline to prosecute charge—make up about 37.7 percent of the 49,033 total cases processed by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in those years. Of that 37.7 percent, 55 percent of these cases have a non-adverse (dismissed or equivalent) outcome.

In Massachusetts, advocates have been demanding reforms to a system that disproportionately over-polices, over-charges, and over-prosecutes people of color. Black and brown people in Suffolk County have born the weight of fear-based tactics that presume the worst of people and disrupt countless lives. We need data-based solutions that are rooted in restoration, transformation, and healing. A small step forward is declining to prosecute these lower-level offenses. The data show us that doing so is an important—yet hardly radical—step forward for racial justice.