McAuliffe says she’ll be the ‘progressive change candidate’ for DA

Boston attorney cites lifetime commitment to social justice

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SHANNON MCAULIFFE may have to shift gears from a campaign that was preparing to challenge a 16-year incumbent to what is now a wide-open race for Suffolk County district attorney, but the veteran defense lawyer and youth services manager says there will be no shift in her message.

“The gap between what we should be doing and what we are doing is far and wide,” she said. “We’ve been doing the same thing for way too long,” said McAuliffe, who plans to call for a wholesale “reshaping of the culture” of the DA’s office to one that focuses on diverting people away from jail and toward positive pursuits before they become serious offenders.

The 49-year-old McAuliffe had been making plans to launch a challenge to Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley – until he shocked the political and legal world on Tuesday by announcing that he won’t seek reelection this fall. But whether it was challenging the status quo that she says Conley has represented or now running in an open race with other competitors, McAuliffe said she represents the true change the she believes people want to see in the office.

“Lots of people can say that they are the reform candidate,” said McAuliffe, who says she’ll be the “progressive change candidate” in the race. “The voters have to be very careful not to get caught up in lip service but to look at what they’ve done,” she said. “I have spent my life’s work figuring out and pushing change in new and different and unexpected ways.”

McAuliffe, who grew up in Southern California, spent a year after college in a Jesuit-run volunteer program in Seattle where she worked with a public defender. “My job was to interview people who were stuck in jail on mostly minor probation violations,” she said.

McAuliffe said a plate of glass divided her from the office’s clients, but she came to conclude that it also “divided these two different worlds, where my world had systems that worked to build me, and these people I was talking to – their world had systems that hadn’t done that and ended up breaking them down.”

“I decided at that moment that I wanted to be part of the building of good systems,” she said.

She came to Boston and attended Suffolk Law School, worked as a federal public defender in San Diego for two years, and then worked as a public defender in state courts in Massachusetts, with a two-year stint at a Boston law firm, where she says she stayed only long enough to pay off her student loans.

“On Day 1,” she said of her legal career, “I realized the system worked differently for different people because most of my clients were black and brown, as were most of the victims.”

Ten years ago, her husband, Richard Egbert, a prominent Boston defense attorney, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack while they were vacationing in upstate New York. “When the most important person in your life vanishes in a second, it really makes you think about how you want to live the rest of your life,” said McAuliffe.

In 2012, she put her legal career on hold to pursue a master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. McAuliffe said she wanted to learn how to make systemic change that would “move the needle on poverty and incarceration.”

In 2015, she started work at Roca, a Chelsea-based nonprofit that employs a model of aggressive outreach to gang- and court-involved young men to try to get them on paths where they sustain employment and stay out of jail.

Her campaign website says 79 percent of the long-term participants in the Roca programs she directed had no new arrests during the two years she worked at the organization. “One of the things that was most telling was that the young men – who were Roca participants because they’re very high risk [of reoffending] – almost every last one of them had also been a victim,” she said.

Her campaign comes during a time of national rethinking of tough-on-crime policies that saw incarceration rates across the US soar over the last four decades.

“I’m thrilled that we’re having these conversations,” said McAuliffe.

“In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, we should be on the cutting edge,” she said. But McAuliffe said the DA’s office has instead hewed to convention, not using court diversion nearly as much as could be done while still positively impacting crime and safety. She also criticized use of mandatory minimum drug sentences and the cash bail system that she said too often keeps defendants locked “because their poor.”

McAuliffe said there has been far too little attention paid to the role of the DA, a message that dovetails with a public information campaign launched early this month by the ACLU of Massachusetts aimed at increasing voter awareness of the importance of the DA’s position.

“Who your DA is matters,” proclaims McAuliffe’s campaign website, a clear echo of the ACLU initiative dubbed, “What a Difference a DA Makes.”

McAuliffe said she supports efforts on Beacon Hill to repeal certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and said she “absolutely” backs a call to raise the minimum age for adult court jurisdiction from 18 to 19. That measure has been pushed by advocates who say the brains of young adults are still forming into their early 20s, and that treating more offenders in the juvenile system, with its emphasis on rehabilitation, can prevent them from becoming chronic offenders as adults.

McAuliffe has never worked as a prosecutor, something that has often been seen as a prerequisite for DA candidates. “This DA’s office has a lot of great attorneys who are great at trying cases and getting convictions,” she said. “That’s not what they’re in need of. They’re in need of trying new approaches so that we’re not incarcerating people who don’t need to be incarcerated.”

McAuliffe, who plans to vie in the September 4 Democratic primary, could face a crowded field with the rare opening in one of the most coveted prosecutor positions in the state. Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty said he will consider a run, as will Eugene O’Flaherty, the city’s corporation counsel and a one-time House chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary committee.

There is also likely to be strong interest in seeing a minority candidate vie for the post. Rachel Rollins, an African-American lawyer who has served as chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Port Authority and to the MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Transportation, is also said to be considering a run. Rollins, a Medford resident, would have to move into Suffolk County, which consists of Boston, Revere, Winthrop, and Chelsea.

Rebecca Rutenberg