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'We Are Decades Behind': DA Rachael Rollins On Her Vision For Change

BOSTON (CBS) - Recently, voters in Suffolk County made history by electing the first African-American woman to serve as district attorney. And since taking office, Rachael Rollins is becoming part of a small group of progressive prosecutors aiming to transform the criminal justice system.

Read: More 'Boston Next' Stories

"I know there are a lot of people that benefit from the system being exactly the way it is, the people that voted for me want change," Rollins told WBZ-TV.

Six months into the job, on a ride to Roxbury, the district attorney talked about her vision for change.

"I feel like we are decades behind where we need to be in this system. And it's people who look like me and my family who are losing at every turn. So, I'm going to be a loud advocate for change," said Rollins.

This particular day took Rollins through a host of meetings, a briefing with supervising prosecutors and a visit to Boston Police headquarters to meet a group of middle-school girls interested in a career in law enforcement.

Rachael Rollins
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins (WBZ-TV)

Shortly before the event ended, a violent stabbing wounded an EMT steps away from her office. The next day in court, the suspect charged with assault, with intent to murder, was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation before she could be arraigned.

"If she can stand trial we are going to hold her accountable, irrespective of her mental health issues," said Rollins.

WEB EXTRA: Ride-Along With DA Rollins

The 48-year-old half-Irish, half-black Cambridge native has a lived experience unlike her counterparts.

"I'm the oldest of five children. I have siblings that are incarcerated or struggling with addiction and are in recovery, I'm proud to say," said Rollins.

She had also never run for office, but campaigned on progressive strategies and won the general election with 80-percent of the vote. Months after being sworn in, she released a 65-page policy outlining her new approach in criminal justice.

"My goal is to make sure the people who come in contact with our criminal justice system and are filtered there, that we just pause for a moment. And see if we can get them in contact with the different entities that are there to help them," Rollins said.

But that pause has sparked biting push-back. The Rollins Memo directed her lawyers to not prosecute 15 low-level, non-violent crimes and take mental health into account when seeking punishment. The new policy also re-evaluates recommendations for cash bail.

Rachael Rollins
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins meets with middle school students at BPD headquarters (WBZ-TV)

"You are innocent until proven guilty, right? And if the only reason you are being held is because you can't afford bail, that's a problem to me," said Rollins.

Among her critics, the state's Secretary of Public Safety, who sent her a letter asking she look over her policies.

"I represent everyone, of course I'm going to listen to the people who are skeptical. And quite frankly, the people that disagree wholeheartedly with what I'm proposing," Rollins said. "We are going to keep trying the things that I propose. And I need to be given the time to see if those proposals work or not."

WEB EXTRA: Extended Interview With DA Rollins

From January to June, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office has dismissed 303 charges against adult defendants, prior to arraignment, across courts in Boston and Chelsea.

For Rollins, what seems to be working is how the office operates and who runs it. She's spearheading efforts to collect data electronically and in real time to update a "badly outdated case-management software."

The office is the first in the Commonwealth to hire a Chief of Strategy and Innovation or a Technologist.

Rollins' chief of staff and chief of the gang unit are among the first women to hold the jobs. And her general counsel is also a woman.

"We are making sure that we are getting the most qualified people. Gender is irrelevant but it's also wonderful when we are able to break some glass ceilings along the way," Rollins said.

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