In the beginning of his career, Rahsaan Hall struggled with the idea of being a Black prosecutor sending other Black and Latinx individuals to jail.
After more than a decade of working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, Hall, who graduated from Northeastern University’s School of Law with a juris doctor degree in 1998, is running for Plymouth County district attorney to help bring change to the criminal justice system from within.
“It doesn’t hold up to what we now understand the impacts are of isolation, and overcrowding, and shaming, and trauma,” Hall says. “We’ve got generations of evidence to show that a majority of the people who go into prison don’t come out better.”
Hall, 49, a Brockton resident, is the only Democratic candidate on the Plymouth County ballot in this year’s midterm election. He is challenging the incumbent Marshfield Republican Tim Cruz, 62, who is seeking reelection for a sixth four-year term.
Cruz, who has been the Plymouth County DA for the last 21 years, is running on the basis of his prior accomplishments: aggressive prosecution of crime, increased law enforcement suppression efforts and proactive violence prevention initiatives.
Hall, a civil rights advocate, former assistant DA and ordained reverend, is offering voters a vision of a public safety system in which victims are treated with compassion and respect and people who have caused harm are held accountable in a way that is beneficial to their communities.
The slogan of his campaign is “Reclaiming the spirit of justice.”
“The goal is to deliver a system of justice that’s rooted in restoration, transformation and healing,” Hall says.
For a long time, the criminal justice system has been operating by being tough on crime in the name of law and order. This approach has failed to deliver justice, Hall says, citing wrongful convictions, unjust sentences and the lack of alternative ways to resolve matters in low-level nonviolent offenses.
Hall says that victims and survivors of violent crime must be treated with dignity and respect so that they feel heard and cared for by people in the system instead of being treated as just witnesses in a case.
At the same time, he is concerned about the lack of transparency in the Plymouth County DA office, high incarceration rates and one of the highest rates of recidivism for incarcerated people.
Hall wants to make sure that the DA’s office does not make the existing racial disparities in American society worse. He intends to openly share the office’s policies and practices with the public and proposes to collect empirical data to measure whether the agency’s practices are effective, and what the outcomes for communities are.
Hall says prison is not always the best alternative and that there are other ways to ensure accountability, especially for individuals who struggle with substance use and mental health disorders. He hopes to invest in community-based alternatives and programs that increase positive outcomes for the community and receive people whose cases were diverted to make sure they are not trapped in the cycle of recidivism.
“That’s what it means to reclaim the spirit of justice,” Hall says.
Hall has built his professional career at the intersection of criminal justice and civil rights advocacy.
After completing his bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University, Hall came to Boston to become a lawyer at the advice of his father, David Hall, a professor of law at Northeastern at the time. David Hall was the first African American dean of the School of Law in 1993 and, later, the provost and senior vice president of Northeastern.
“It’s almost embarrassing to say, the Tom Cruise movie, ‘The Firm,’ was something that inspired me,” Hall says. “I wanted to get into corporate law and tax law, what I drew from that movie, I saw as a lucrative career opportunity.”
At Northeastern, a “decidedly progressive law school,” Hall became exposed to people and ideas that were focused on changing the world and advocating on behalf of marginalized people. These ideas of caring about a community and being a part of the struggle for liberation and justice for oppressed people resonated with him, Hall says.
“I was centered in who I truly was,” he says.
In the beginning of his career, Hall struggled with the idea of being a Black man in the position of sending other Black and Latinx individuals to jail. However, Ralph Martin, class of 1978 and the district attorney for Suffolk County at that time, told him that the people of color who live in those communities that are beset by violence and the people of color who are victims of crime deserved to see a Black man in the courtroom and deserve to have his representation.
Starting in 2000, Hall spent eight years working as an assistant DA in Dorchester District Court and in Suffolk County Superior Court under Martin, prosecuting drug, gang and homicide cases.
He says he gained appreciation for the work police officers do day to day, the sacrifices they made, the good intentions they had in earnestly trying to help people. He also saw people with ill intentions and those who abused the system.
“I also saw how the culture of law enforcement and policing was deficient and created harm in communities of color,” Hall says. “As a result, there were significant racial disparities that I was a witness to and a part of.”
He became a staff attorney at Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, handling race and national origin discrimination cases, police misconduct cases and voting rights cases.
“I began to get into some lobbying and policy advocacy on legislative matters that impacted communities of color,” Hall says, which led him to the ACLU where he focused on policy advocacy and community engagement.
In 2012, Hall received a master’s of divinity degree and was ordained. He serves on the ministerial staff at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge.
“My faith is one that is informed by the scriptures, revealing God showing up on the side of the oppressed,” Hall says. “And that’s what informs not only my ministry within the church, but it also informed my vocation.”
In 2017, Hall led a project at the ACLU titled “What a difference a DA makes.” The polling of Massachusetts residents showed that four out of 10 voters didn’t know the DA was an elected position, although it is one of the most influential positions to effect change in the criminal legal system, Hall says. District attorneys hold sway over who gets charged, what they get charged with, how much bail is requested, what sentencing recommendations would be, and much more.
The campaign resulted in 81% of voters saying that they would pay attention in the next DA election. In 2018, there were five contested DA races in Massachusetts, which hadn’t happened since 1986, Hall says. And after working on the campaign and engaging with voters, Hall decided to run for the DA office himself.
He hopes to join the ranks of other Northeastern graduates such as Ralph Martin, Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan (class of 1986), U. S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Rachael Rollins (class of 1997), and the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (class of 1998) who chose to go into public service.
“The emphasis around the way to use the law as a tool for social progress is something that is a part of the ethos of Northeastern’s law school and that permeates through the careers of many of its alumni,” Hall says. “And so I hope to count myself in that tradition of public servants who bring honor to our alma mater.”