Baker looks to leverage bail controversy

Administration wants to expand ability to hold defendants before trial 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM supporters have been pushing to draw attention to the role played by bail in the legal system. Whether this will end up being a case of “be careful what you wish for” remains to be seen, but the issue is getting attention in ways advocates did not intend. 

The latest volley comes from the Baker administration, which is using a recent case to dial up pressure on the Legislature to act on a bill that would make it easier to hold more defendants indefinitely without bail before trial. 

The Globe reports today that Thomas Turco, Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety secretary, sent a letter to legislators urging passage of a bill filed by the governor that would expand the ability to hold defendants deemed dangerous without bail.

His legislation would let defendants be held indefinitely before trial, rather than the current limit of 180 days for cases in Superior Court and 120 days for District Court cases. It would also allow prosecutors to seek a ruling at any point that a defendant is too dangerous to have a bail amount set. Currently they must do that at the initial arraignment. It would also expand the cases for which prosecutors could seek a dangerousness hearing to include a wider set of charges, such a child rape, which is not currently included in that group. 

Turco’s letter cited the recent case of Shawn McClinton, a convicted rapist who was facing a new rape charge in July when the nonprofit Massachusetts Bail Fund posted the $15,000 bail he was being held on. Three weeks later, McClinton was arrested and charged with a new case of kidnapping and rape. 

The nonprofit Bail Fund, which opposes all cash bail, has seen a surge in donations as it spotlights the role of bail in keeping poorer defendants locked up before being tried while those of greater means have their bail posted and are free while awaiting trial. The organization, which originally posted bail amounts up to $500, has used the growth in support to bail out defendants facing more serious charges. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Attorney General Maura Healey sharply criticized the group for posting McClinton’s bail, 

Rollins’s office filed a motion in another case to raise a homeless defendant’s bail tenfold after learning the Bail Fund was prepared to provide the funds to have him released, but she withdrew the motion a day after CommonWealth reported on it and it drew broad criticism. Her office filed a similar motion in at least one other case, but the defense attorney in that case, Meg Stanley, said this morning that the DA’s office notified her it planned to withdraw the motion today.  

Advocates called the criticism of the Bail Fund by Rollins and Healey misplaced, and said DAs should file for dangerousness hearings if they think a defendant poses an imminent public safety risk, not rely on high bail amounts to keep them behind bars. 

Rollins recently said her office will be seeking dangerousness hearings in more cases, something Worcester DA Joseph Early said his office would also be doing.  

Now, Baker is urging the Legislature to go further and expand the ways defendants can be held without bail. 

The administration’s bill is “a giant step backwards in criminal justice reform,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, whose lawyers represent indigent defendants, told the Globe. “If this bill becomes law more people will be locked up for longer periods of time before trial. There is no data that supports why we need to do this.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The administration seems to be hoping the Bail Fund involvement in more serious cases — and the outrage over the McClinton case in particular — will give fresh momentum to the bill, which Baker has filed twice before only to see lawmakers not act on it. 

It was just two years ago that Baker signed a sweeping criminal justice reform law that included reforms to the bail system and reduced some mandatory minimum sentences. In an era that has been marked by a sharp turn away from the more punitive approach to crime of the 1980s and 90s, the question now is whether legislators will be receptive to a proposal that swings the pendulum in the opposite direction.