New York State In-depth

Two district attorney candidates spar at debate in Suffolk County jail

“Not all experience is good experience … if it’s not good experience, it’s not worth very much,” Arroyo said during one exchange.

The back-and-forth occurred during the roughly two-hour debate at the county jail, which was moderated by Suffolk Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins. Most of the questions were posed by inmates who spoke of their experiences in the criminal justice system. It was one of at least three debates planned this week in the race to replace District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who left in January to serve as US attorney in Massachusetts. Hayden, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to fill out the remainder of the term, said he was destined to serve in the position and bring about needed change.

Arroyo was eager to engage during the debate and took specific aim at Hayden’s handling of an investigation into MBTA Transit Police wrongdoing and allegations of a police cover-up. Questions about Hayden’s reluctance to pursue the investigation were first publicly raised in a Boston Globe report.

Arroyo also questioned Hayden’s experience as executive director of the Sex Offender Registry Board, after a 2017 independent state audit found problems with the oversight of hundreds of sex offenders.

Hayden took issue with the allegations, saying the investigation into Transit Police cover-up had been ongoing and he had intended to bring the case to a grand jury before the Globe report was published. The state audit, he said, was based on problems that predated his tenure and he was brought in to address them.

“Creating policies and procedures because you were called out by an audit is not leading. Prosecuting a case because you were called out by the Globe is not leading,” Arroyo said. “Those things are real issues to experience, and if we’re going to talk about experience let’s just be honest about what that is.”

Arroyo’s charges, Hayden countered, were, “simply not true.”

Throughout the debate, Arroyo sought to position himself as the bold reformer more aligned with the policies of Rollins, who brought a progressive agenda to the post, including a list of non-violent crimes that she would refuse to prosecute, such as shoplifting. Hayden has since scaled back the policy and said cases should be examined on an individual basis, though he recognized the need to look at solutions other than incarceration.

If someone is shoplifting “over and over and over again, and we know it that needs to be addressed,” he said. That could mean diversion to treatment programs, particularly if the defendant has a history of mental illness or substance abuse, or past trauma.

“We have to deal with that problem. Otherwise we’re never going to solve the problem and that person will keep coming before us,” he said.

Arroyo, a former public defender before he was elected to the City Council, said he opposes using the criminal justice system to coerce people into treatment under the threat of jail time. He ticked off other policy differences between him and Hayden: He supports ending mandatory-minimum sentencing laws; he opposes qualified immunity protections that guard police officers from certain civil law suits; he supports redirecting funds used for police overtime funds to other health-focused programs.

“There are a number of different stances that I have that are policy based … , that will create more justice for more people,” he said.

Hayden said he has brought policy changes throughout county and state government. He drafted new regulations for the state Sex Offender Registry Board, earning him the support of state officials and legislators, he said. And he has brought reforms to the district attorney’s office in his months there, he said, including the creation of a community engagement team within the office, and a unit devoted to investigating gun trafficking. He also expanded a Services Over Sentences program that redirects people to rehabilitation and treatment programs rather than jail: Hayden said the program has targeted defendants arrested in the area known as Mass. and Cass, the center of the city’s opioid epidemic.

Hayden sought to draw a difference between defendants who suffer from trauma and mental illness and are addicted to drugs, and the drug traffickers who prey on them.

“On Mass. and Cass we have a public health problem, but we also have a public safety problem and we need to address both of those problems,” he said.

One inmate, dressed in blue prison garb, told the candidates she has been waiting two years for her trial and it’s not even scheduled yet. She questioned how each of the candidates would reduce the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system.

Hayden told her that officials need to find ways to resolve cases without the need for a trial. Arroyo said he would restore Rollins’ policy of not prosecuting certain crimes.

Another inmate, dressed in green prison garb, described himself as an Afghanistan veteran and a college graduate who ran into legal troubles. But he questioned why prosecutors are only willing to spotlight a defendant’s negative history before a judge, without citing their moral qualities.

“We need uplifting, and we need a lot of encouragement,” he told the candidates, urging them — whoever wins — to work more to recognize the humanity of defendants.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.

Comments are closed.