Less than half of Massachusetts voters think that the criminal justice system is working, with voters across racial and ideological lines believing that the system works differently for different people, according to a new poll by the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Voters also feel helpless as to how to reform the system, said Chris Anderson, president of Anderson Robbins Research (which conducted the poll), because they don’t know where to start making changes.
Voters are often confused about who holds the power within the criminal justice system, the poll found. Half of those surveyed believed that individual district attorneys have a minor or insignificant impact on the system, even though DAs make decisions like whether to prosecute an offender and whether to recommend a sentence of rehab versus jail time.
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Nearly four in ten voters do not know that DAs are elected.
These findings will inform a new voter education campaign by the ACLU called “What a Difference a DA Makes,” which will launch this fall, said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“Massachusetts voters don’t yet know the extent to which district attorneys play a role in determining the fate of a lot of people's lives,” she said. “People don’t realize the only check and balance of DAs are in the voting booth.”
The poll surveyed 618 voters statewide and included two focus groups to further discuss the voters' opinions.
More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they view a reputation for honesty and “doing what is right” as a more important quality in a DA than experience as a prosecutor.
“We saw something of an awakening in voters when learning more about DAs,” Anderson said. “Nearly every voter left saying they would pay more attention to DA elections in the future now that they have this information.”
The ACLU said they are not calling out any specific DAs in the commonwealth but did note that many DAs have run uncontested in recent years. DA elections occur every four years.
The awareness campaign may level the playing field, the ACLU said, because current DAs will understand that voters expect more, and voters will be more equipped to hold district attorneys accountable.
To Rose, the poll also served as a reflection of the entire justice system, which she says is in need of reform.
“The election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Jeff Sessions has magnified the need for us to have criminal justice reform in the state, where we can actually make a difference,” she said.