Baker’s dangerousness bill divides DA candidates
Prosecutors are on the frontlines in detention proceedings
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S effort to bolster the state law allowing defendants to be held before trial has been shelved for now by lawmakers, who call it an unwarranted overreach, but the bill raises important questions about how the system should deal with those charged but not yet convicted of any crime.
The state’s district attorneys are the key players in those proceedings, and the issue is dividing some candidates in this year’s DA races.
The contrast may be most pointed in Plymouth County, where Republican incumbent Timothy Cruz is set to face off in November against Democrat Rahsaan Hall.
Cruz said he supports Baker’s bill. “This legislation would have given the current statute more teeth and would have empowered the criminal justice system to be equipped to effectively prosecute violent offenders, help victims of crime and all citizens feel safe,” he said in a statement.
Hall, who previously served as director of the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said it’s important to strike the right balance between concern for victims and for defendants’ rights. “For as much as we need to be concerned about survivors of violent crime and potential victims, we also need to be concerned about individuals who are wrongfully accused, arrested, and or charged with an offense that would subject them to being detained indefinitely without bail,” he said. “We must also be concerned with the racial disparities that result from expanding the reach of this law.”
Cruz said the bill would close dangerous “loopholes” by having state law mirror federal statutes that allow consideration of a defendant’s “history of serious criminal convictions” in determining whether they pose too great a danger to be released.
Defendants are generally allowed to post bail and be released while awaiting trial. Bail is supposed to ensure that they return to court, and is not supposed to serve simply as a means of keeping someone locked up. In a limited set of cases, prosecutors can seek a separate hearing from the one where bail is set where they argue that a defendant poses too great a danger to be released before trial. Baker’s bill would expand the types of cases eligible for such a “dangerousness hearing” to include certain sex crimes, such as indecent assault on a child, and other crimes not currently covered by the statute. It would also allow judges to consider a defendant’s criminal history in making such a ruling, something not permitted currently.
In Essex County, with no Republican on the ballot, the race to succeed Jonathan Blodgett, who is not seeking reelection, will be decided in the September 6 Democratic primary between state Rep. Paul Tucker of Salem and Middleton attorney James O’Shea.
Tucker said he supports many aspects of the bill, including expanding the offenses eligible for a dangerousness hearing. He also said he would support the bill’s provision allowing for a dangerousness hearing after an initial hearing where bail is set. Currently, prosecutors can only seek a dangerousness hearing at the outset of a case.
That issue was spotlighted by a Suffolk County case two years ago in which a convicted sex offender arrested on rape charges was released after a nonprofit bail fund helped pay the $15,000 bail he was held on. He was arrested and charged with violent assault and rape three weeks later.
O’Shea said a bill that includes additional charges eligible for a dangerousness hearing, such as crimes against children, “may make sense,” but he objected to other parts of it, including the use of a defendant’s prior history. “The use of prior convictions” in seeking a dangerousness hearing “raises potential double jeopardy concerns where you are essentially incarcerating someone twice for the same crime,” he said in a statement.