Senate resurrects dangerousness bill in after-midnight vote

Sen. Edwards said provision ‘speaks to me and my lived experience’

BANISHED TO the Legislature’s study scrap heap and crushed by a vote in the House on Saturday, a proposal to expand the offenses for which a defendant can be declared dangerous and held pre-trial rose from the dead early Monday morning when the Senate voted to approve it by a lopsided vote of 30-8.

After a fairly listless last day of the legislative session, the Senate suddenly launched into a lively debate shortly after midnight, with progressives teaming up with conservatives to back portions of an initiative put forward originally by Gov. Charlie Baker to give judges more power to declare defendants dangerous and lock them up prior to trial.

The surprising vote may end up being largely symbolic because it came after midnight with little chance the House will reverse itself and adopt the proposal. Lawmakers also warned that the vote likely means free prison phone calls won’t survive this legislative session.

Baker had marshaled support for the proposal by bringing together victims of abuse who pushed for giving judges more flexibility in deeming defendants dangerous.

Nevertheless, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee sent the measure to study, which is typically legislative shorthand for death, and suggested the testimony of the abuse victims was part of “well-crafted public relations tour.”

That angered Baker and the abuse victims, prompting the governor to seek another avenue for his proposal. In signing the state budget, he refused to sign into law free phone calls for prison inmates and other prison reforms, instead returning those sections with an amendment that includes elements of his bill expanding when a judge can order someone held pre-trial.  

The House rejected the governor’s amendment by a vote of 122-31, with Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley of Mattapan branding the governor’s attempted end-around using free prison phone calls as “abhorrent and an abomination.”

Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, took another shot at the issue shortly after midnight Sunday with a proposal that expanded the crimes for which a defendant can be declared dangerous, made it a crime to remove a GPS device, and required notice be given, if possible, to an alleged abuse victim six hours before the alleged abuser is released.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, argued against the proposal. He said people of color are overwhelming the persons detained for dangerousness, a situation he said would only worsen with an expansion of the crimes covered. He also said too many of the crimes were non-physical, which he said was troubling.

Eldridge said there is no limit on how long people can be held pre-trial as dangerous (he mentioned one case from New Bedford where a person was held 914 days) and lambasted the governor for linking dangerousness hearings and free prison phone calls.

Sen. Lydia Edwards of East Boston, sitting next to Eldridge, said she had personal experience with obtaining a restraining order against someone who harassed her in connection with a legal case she handled as an attorney. She said she would want notice if her harasser was coming out of jail.

Edwards said she wasn’t troubled by the inclusion of non-physical crimes. “Don’t confuse the fact that something isn’t causing physical touch that it is not violent, that it is not frightening, that it does not cause harm. I really do want to trust the judges to be able to analyze that,” she said.

“I’m surprised to say this but this is somewhat reasonable and protective,” Edwards said of the amendment. “It’s speaking to me and my lived experience. It speaks to many of the people in my district.”

The tide in the debate clearly began to turn when Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont said he supported Tarr’s amendment because it continued the pursuit of criminal justice reform.

Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington said he was moved by the debate but warned that he had learned from his experience in the Legislature that lawmakers overreach when addressing such criminal justice issues and often end up causing more harm than good.

In the end, only eight senators voted against the amendment. The eight included Sens. Barrett, Eldridge, Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, Jo Comerford of Northampton, Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, and Jason Lewis of Winchester.

Tarr thanked his fellow senators for the quality of the debate and said it sets an example for how lawmakers should act. “Notwithstanding the fact that it was after 1 a.m. when we started discussing this, we all reached down and found the best within us to bring to this discussion,” he said.