Two of the most high-profile progressive prosecutors in the nation resigned last week, marking a significant setback for the criminal justice reform movement.
Kim Gardner of St. Louis and Rachael Rollins of Boston are two Black women at the vanguard of a nationwide initiative to lessen prison sentences, implement restorative justice and hold police departments accountable. Both achieved prominence during the Trump years, when state and city officials were seen by the administration’s opponents as critical backstops to retrograde policies emanating from Washington.
While their resignations were not connected, the two prosecutors’ respective troubles represent the struggles of a movement that appears to have lost some of the public goodwill it previously enjoyed.
Celtics tickets, Biden fundraisers and political machinations
In 2018, Rollins emerged from a crowded Democratic primary to become Boston’s district attorney, the first Black woman to do so.
Taking cues from fellow progressive district attorneys Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and Kim Foxx of Chicago, Rollins said she would no longer prosecute certain crimes, including shoplifting and larceny involving goods valued at less than $250.
One local publication called Rollins “Boston’s greatest hope to bring the criminal justice system into the wide, woke 21st century.”
In mid-2021, President Biden nominated Rollins to serve as the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Again, she would be the first Black woman in that role. The nomination received high praise from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Ed Markey, both Democrats, who called her a “national leader on transforming the criminal justice system.”
Republicans opposed her nomination unilaterally, with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas emerging as an especially vociferous critic. Rollins was ultimately confirmed, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Her political demise began on July 14, 2022, when she decided to attend a Biden fundraiser in Andover, Mass., despite being advised not to do so. Cotton quickly called for an investigation, as Rollins appeared to be in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from political advocacy.
The inspector general of the Department of Justice opened an inquiry, which culminated in a report that was made public last week. Broadening its scope well beyond the Andover fundraiser, the report details how Rollins allegedly accepted free Boston Celtics tickets and also traveled to both New York and Los Angeles at the expense of Creative Artists Agency, the high-powered Hollywood firm.
Her conduct “fell far short of the standards of professionalism and judgment that the Department should expect of any employee, much less a U.S. Attorney,” the Justice inspector general, Michael Horowitz, wrote in his long and devastating report.
A separate investigation — this one conducted by special counsel Henry Kerner — would turn out to be just as devastating, describing how Rollins had leaked damaging information on a political rival to Boston reporters in hopes of defeating his bid to retain the district attorney’s office she vacated in 2021.
Kerner’s report was also released last week. In a letter to Biden, Kerner wrote that Rollins had engaged “in extraordinary abuse of her authority.” (The leaks also featured prominently in the Justice report, though Horowitz had a broader mandate.)
Rollins stepped down on Wednesday, a move her nemesis Cotton was quick to celebrate.
“I warned Democratic senators that Rachael Rollins wasn’t only a pro-criminal ideologue but also had a history of poor judgment and ethical lapses,” he said in a statement.
‘A rudderless ship of chaos’
Gardner, like Rollins, was a historic figure, the first Black person to serve as the chief prosecutor in St. Louis when she was elected to the position in 2017.
“We all want quality of life, we all want to make sure our streets are safer,” Gardner said after her victory, “but we have to address the broken criminal justice system.”
Her tenure was fraught from the start. In her investigation of disgraced Gov. Eric Greitens — who had resigned amid lurid allegations of violent sexual assault — she employed a former FBI agent, William Don Tisaby, who was indicted in 2019 for tampering with evidence.
Like many progressive prosecutors, Gardner found her office a difficult venue from which to enact reform. In 2021, a judge charged that her office had “essentially abandoned its duty to prosecute those it charges with crimes,” after a prosecutor failed to show up for hearings in a murder case.
Trust in Gardner was further eroded in February, when a Tennessee teenager who’d been visiting St. Louis with her parents was hit by a speeding driver and lost both of her legs. The suspect was revealed to have had 94 bond violations in the two years prior to the crash, prompting calls for Gardner to resign.
Earlier this year, Gardner began taking nursing classes at a local university. The state’s Republican attorney general called her office “a rudderless ship of chaos.”
GOP state officials moved to strip Gardner of her power. Already planning to resign at the end of the month, Gardner said on Tuesday that she would step down at once.
The future of the movement
The social justice protests that took place across the country were punctuated by calls to defund police departments — calls that seemed tailored to the new prosecutorial approach.
But persistently high crime rates eventually made many clamor for a more traditional law-and-order approach, which progressive prosecutors resisted. That led to intense new scrutiny of their policies and practices, which some of them failed to withstand.
Gardner and Rollins are not the first progressive prosecutors to experience a fall from grace.
In the summer of 2021, San Francisco voters ousted progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, handing him — and the movement he represented — a resounding defeat.
Last year, Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby was charged with financial impropriety and perjury—and later lost a primary race.
Earlier this year, Chicago prosecutor Foxx announced that she would not seek a third term.
Krasner, in Philadelphia, survived a recall, and so did fellow progressive George Gascón in Los Angeles. But the movement they represent has been sapped of the strength it only recently enjoyed.