DA Candidate Patalano Calls for Transparency, Accountability
LOWELL -- Middlesex District Attorney candidate Donna Patalano blasted the incumbent Marian Ryan in a Sun Editorial Board meeting last week, labeling the office a “black box” when it comes to releasing such data as pretrial incarcerations, who is prosecuted versus who is diverted, the outcomes of diversion programs and the details of how her just under $17 million budget is spent.
By law, district attorneys aren’t required to release this information, Patalano said, but she believes greater transparency and accountability are needed.
Middlesex has a great Drug Court, but no data is released about who gets to benefit from it, said Patalano, a Winchester Democrat who seeks to unseat Ryan.
“Do I know if the kid from Lowell is getting the same fair treatment as the kid from Weston?” Patalano said in a Thursday editorial board meeting with The Sun. “Absolutely not, and neither do you.”
“We track case-related information internally and report numerous sets of data to the Legislature annually. We recognize the important role data plays in understanding the criminal justice system and we have been working with the Legislature to expand and improve this process,” Ryan spokeswoman Meghan Kelly said in response to Patalano’s “black box comments. “The data collection provisions of the Criminal Justice Reform law are a critical step toward this goal. There will be a significant financial cost for these statewide system updates. We will work with the Legislature and the Governor’s Office to secure funding for this important initiative.”
A former assistant district attorney under Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, Patalano said Middlesex County deserves a district attorney who will lead the conversation on equitable criminal justice reform and isn’t afraid to “shine a bright light” on racial disparities in the justice system.
Patalano, who worked in health-care management earlier in her career, left her job as Suffolk’s chief of professional integrity and ethics to run for the Middlesex office. She has experience as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, and is a past chair of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers.
“There’s no other business in the world that is run like the criminal justice system,” Patalano said. “We invest hundreds of millions of dollars without looking at the outcomes to see if we’re any safer at all.”
Massachusetts incarcerates eight times as many blacks and five times as many Hispanics as it does whites, Patalano said, citing federal statistics. That is worse than the national average, she said.
The Middlesex County Jail is holding 110 percent more people since Ryan became DA, Patalano said.
If people are being held because they can’t come up with a cash bail, it costs the taxpayers $175 each day they are incarcerated, she said. In the meantime, they are likely to lose their jobs, housing and suffer other consequences, Patalano said.
Even though incarceration costs aren’t part of the DA’s budget, they need to be considered and discussed, she said.
As DA, Patalano said she will collect and release data every six months on what bail requests were made and who was held on bail “so you know exactly what my office is doing.”
Ryan announced in January that her new policy was no cash bail on low-level non-violent offenses -- something Patalano said has been the law in Massachusetts for a number of years. The policy was sent out to assistant district attorneys and the press in nearly identical format without definition, Patalano said.
“These policies are too subtle, too detailed to be doing policy by press release,” Patalano said.
All district attorneys and the attorney general have access to a $600,000 fund to assist victims and witnesses who are in danger, Patalano said. It can be used for such expenses as changing door locks for a victim in a domestic violence case or rent assistance, she said.
In the last four years, out of 140,000 cases in Middlesex County, there have only been two claims totaling $3,800, Patalano said. She said it’s “practically criminal.”
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office has the worst staff retention rate in the state -- 15 percent over the years explored in a recent state audit, Patalano said.
In Suffolk, Patalano said she worked on the Juvenile Alternative Resolution program, which partnered with UMass Boston and community social agencies to collect data to determine which programs were successful in lowering the recidivism rate. That allowed them to invest more resources in the programs with good outcomes, rather than keep putting kids in programs that didn’t work, she said.
If elected, Patalano said she will form a juvenile and emerging adult bureau as a means to lower recidivism and give young people “a meaningful exit strategy to be a productive member of society.” She said research has shown, based on cognitive development, that those up through age 24 are more amenable to rehabilitation and that must be leveraged while they are in the system.
At Suffolk, Patalano said she also built and ran the state’s first conviction integrity program, which examined the post-conviction claims of innocence to determine whether justice was served. The last case she worked on was that of Frederick Clay, a black man who was freed last year after spending 38 years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit.
Patalano said it was a proud moment when she stood up in the court room and asked for Clay’s conviction to be vacated. Realizing she was the same age as Clay, she said she thought of all the experiences she had in that time, that he lost out on.
“That really hits home when you think of a case that way,” she said.
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