But that hasn’t stopped Rollins, 50, from gaining success in a state long dominated by White male political leaders. In 2018, Rollins, who is Black, beat out several candidates, including a prosecutor who had the backing of police and the outgoing district attorney, to become the first woman elected DA in Massachusetts.
On Monday, Rollins was put in a position to make history again, when the White House included her on a slate of eight nominees for U.S. attorney posts. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the first Black woman to fill Massachusetts’ top federal prosecutor job. Given Democrats’ majority in the Senate, confirmation is likely, although Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was the first senator to publicly oppose her nomination on Thursday.
According to a November 2020 Associated Press report, White men led 79 of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices at the time, and women — including two Black women — held nine of the spots. The U.S. attorneys serve as the nation’s principal litigators under the direction of the U.S. attorney general.
“Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins is incredibly humbled by the great honor of being nominated by President Biden to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts,” Rollins’s office said in a statement. “She remains focused on doing the hard work of keeping the residents of Suffolk County safe.” (Her office referred to the statement during a request for an interview.)
The nomination is resonating with other Black women in high-profile legal positions. In Illinois, Democrat Kim Foxx forged a path parallel to Rollins’s, becoming the first Black woman elected as state’s attorney for Cook County in 2016.
Foxx said that when she found out that Rollins, a good friend, was being considered for the U.S. attorney position, she was “elated.”
“This is recognizing that breaking barriers, not just at the state level but at the federal level, would open so many more doors for Black women in law enforcement,” she said.
Rollins, Foxx said, is “unapologetic about being a Black woman and what that means, what that responsibility entails.”
Rollins served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 2007 to 2011 before moving on to represent state transportation agencies. In her current role, she has focused on ending the prosecution of people for low-level offenses such as shoplifting, drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.
Melba Pearson, a former prosecutor in Miami-Dade County and president of the National Black Prosecutors Association Foundation, called Rollins’s appointment “humongous and historic.”
Pearson said that not having Black people in criminal justice leadership positions can skew the experiences of people of color within the system.
“If you go into a room and your life and livelihood are on the line, and there isn’t one person who looks like you in the room — coming in with the context of slavery and Jim Crow, in your mind you think, ‘I’m never gonna be treated fairly,’ ” she said.
Rollins had just barely taken office in 2019 when she released the “Rachael Rollins Policy Memo,” outlining a plan to handle nonviolent crimes with “dismissal, diversion, treatment, and services.” To back up her efforts, the memo included data from her office showing that since 2013, 17 of the top 25 most frequently filed charges were for nonviolent offenses.
Rollins is in favor of ending mandatory life-without-parole sentences for young adults, saying that evolving research shows that decision-making could be impaired because teenage brains are still developing. Researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research have found that Rollins’s “decline-to-prosecute” policies hadn’t increased nonviolent misdemeanor crimes reported by the Boston Police Department.
But her progressive stance on criminal justice reform has also generated controversy. After protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, for example, Rollins wrangled with Boston’s largest police union after tweeting what they viewed as anti-police sentiment.
Foxx said she and Rollins are part of a group of Black female prosecutors who discuss the difficulties of being in their roles. “Our credibility is challenged often,” Foxx said. “We’re challenged for being Black, we’re challenged for being women.”
She thinks Rollins’s appointment will signal that Black women can get to the top levels of law enforcement and justice in a world in which few do. “I can’t tell you the number of people in my own office who work with me and say, ‘I never even thought about being state’s attorney until I saw you do it,’ ” she said.
Rollins’s efforts to reform the justice system caught the attention of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats, who submitted names for U.S. attorney candidates in December, including Rollins’s.
“District Attorney Rollins is a national leader on transforming the criminal justice system and shifting away from an approach based on punishment and penalization to one that combats the root causes of injustice, whether it be poverty, substance use, or racial disparity,” they said in a statement this week.
Pearson said the Biden administration has been “intentional” in the types of candidates it has been appointing. “We’ve seen Black female judges being appointed to courts of appeals, which has been huge,” she said, adding that she hopes Rollins will be the next Black woman to make waves.