The Baker administration on Thursday asked lawmakers to make it easier for prosecutors to jail people charged with violent crimes before trial, citing the recent case of an accused rapist who allegedly committed another sexual assault after a nonprofit group bailed him out.
The state’s public safety and security secretary, Thomas A. Turco III, urged the Legislature to allow prosecutors to ask that a defendant be held indefinitely — until his or her case is over — rather than for the current limit of 180 days for Superior Court and 120 days in District Court.
The administration’s bill would also allow prosecutors to ask that a defendant be declared “dangerous” and held without bail at any time after being charged.
Turco also asked lawmakers to allow defendants to be held without bail in a wider array of criminal cases than current law allows. He said “quintessentially dangerous crimes" such as child rape and assault and battery on a child should be added to the list of charges for which a defendant can be held without bail.
In his letter to lawmakers, Turco cited the case of Shawn McClinton, a twice-convicted rapist who was being held on charges of committing a third rape until the Massachusetts Bail Fund, a nonprofit group, paid his $15,000 bail. Within three weeks, he was rearrested on a fourth rape charge.
Under Baker’s proposed legislation, prosecutors would have been able to ask that McClinton be held without bail at any time after his arrest. He is currently being held without bail for 60 days and then on $500,000 cash bail.
“Taking away someone’s freedom while they await a charge is a serious matter, which is why I understand the need for careful deliberation,” wrote Turco, noting that the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary has been considering overhauling the bail system for two years. “But after nearly two years' worth of such deliberation, and following these recent developments, I ask that the committee report out the Governor’s bill favorably as soon as possible.”
Prosecutors expressed support for the administration’s proposal, but criminal defense lawyers and advocacy groups opposed it.
Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, whose lawyers represent indigent defendants, called the bill “a giant step backward in criminal justice reform.”
“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.”
Under current law, if a prosecutor believes a defendant is too dangerous to be released, they may request a hearing at which a judge evaluates whether the defendant can be released safely. But with the exception of prosecutors in Essex and Bristol counties, most Massachusetts district attorneys have not consistently asked for dangerousness hearings, statewide data show.
Instead, they have often relied on setting bail so high that the defendant cannot pay. Advocacy groups have argued the use of high bail openly discriminates against the poor, and nonprofit groups such as the Bail Fund have raised money to free people who can’t afford bail.
But after the Bail Fund bailed out several defendants facing serious charges like rape and attempted murder, some prosecutors, including Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, said they would seek to have defendants declared dangerous and held without bail more often.
The governor has proposed this legislation without success twice before. But Turco wrote to the judiciary committee’s chairs, Senator James Eldridge and Representative Claire Cronin, that “today the Commonwealth is faced with even more challenges that call for enacting this legislation.”
Bail funds, he said, have exploited a loophole that requires a prosecutor to seek a dangerousness hearing at a defendant’s first court appearance. If the prosecutor doesn’t do so, the law does not allow a later request for a hearing. And, once bail is set, anyone can offer to pay for the defendant’s release — no matter what the charges are or the defendant’s criminal history.
Massachusetts Bail Fund organizers say that all cash bail should be eliminated because it hurts poor people and doesn’t reduce crime.
“You have a rare opportunity to close this loophole and protect the public from violent people," Turco wrote. "Serious crimes, from murder to rape and kidnapping, crimes you could help prevent, continue to occur month after month.”
Eldridge said the judiciary committee will take “a close look” at the bill, especially now that the Legislature has extended the session through the end of the year.
But, he added, “I would want to emphasize that, from everything I look at, the crime rates including the most violent crimes has decreased in Massachusetts."
Eldridge also pointed out that prosecutors already have the power to have a defendant declared dangerous, but they haven’t exercised it much, including in the McClinton case. “I think it’s relevant,” he said.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.