Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday unveiled legislation that would make it easier for courts to detain criminal defendants pending trial, following a recent spate of high-profile crimes allegedly committed by people who were free on bail or had lengthy criminal records.
Baker announced the bill during a State House news conference where he was joined by the police chiefs of Weymouth and Yarmouth, where officers were killed in the line of duty this year. The proposal would revamp the state’s dangerousness statute, which empowers judges to detain criminal defendants awaiting trial in felony cases if they pose a danger to the community.
“I think we can all agree that keeping our communities safe is a fundamental responsibility of government and that we take that very seriously,” Baker said. “Based on a series of recent tragedies here in Massachusetts, we came to believe that tremendous damage can be done when our criminal justice system fails to identify and detain dangerous people who have committed serious crimes in our communities.”
Under the bill, the list of criminal offenses that trigger a dangerousness hearing would grow to include human trafficking, assault and battery on a police officer, and several sex crimes.
Judges would no longer be prohibited from considering a defendant’s criminal history when ruling on dangerousness, and prosecutors could seek a dangerousness hearing at any point in a criminal case. The current law requires prosecutors to request dangerousness hearings at arraignment.
Baker’s proposal is backed by prosecutors and police chiefs who say the state’s criminal justice system has failed to keep dangerous criminals off the street while they await trial.
Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson asked the public to support the measure, citing the killings of Yarmouth police Sergeant Sean Gannon, Weymouth police Sergeant Michael Chesna, and Auburn police Officer Ronald Tarentino Jr., who died in 2016.
“This has to take to place because it is all about fairness,” Frederickson said. “Let me ask you, with this current system that we’re working under, was that fair to the Tarentino family? Was it fair to the Gannon family? Was it fair to the Chesna family?”
Gannon was shot and killed in April while he was attempting to serve a warrant on Thomas Latanowich, who was accused of violating his probation.
Chesna was shot and killed in July during a confrontation with Emanuel Lopes, who was free on $500 bail in a drug case. Tarentino was fatally shot after pulling over Jorge Zambrano in May 2016.
Zambrano, who had an extensive criminal history, died 18 hours after the traffic stop during a shoot-out with police in Oxford. Latanowich and Lopes were charged with murder and have pleaded not guilty.
Baker said he hopes lawmakers will schedule hearings on the proposal, even though the Legislature adjourned formal sessions on July 31. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Thursday said the chamber would begin reviewing the plan. A spokeswoman for Senate President Karen Spilka didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Jay Gonzalez, the Democratic nominee for governor, said lawmakers should consider Baker’s bill, saying the current criteria for seeking dangerousness hearings are narrow.
“I think the top priority needs to be making sure our communities are safe,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate and makes sense to consider expanding that criteria.”
Defense lawyers were skeptical, saying Baker’s plan appeared reactionary and could undermine reforms in a criminal justice overhaul signed into law earlier this year.
“My first impression is that at least parts of this proposed legislation seem like a step backward toward the failed policies of putting more people in jail for longer periods of time before trial,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel at Committee for Public Counsel Services, said. “Let’s give the new reform bill a chance to work.”
David Nathanson, a defense lawyer and partner at Wood & Nathanson LLP in Boston, said the plan reads like a “wish list” for prosecutors and could be expensive for taxpayers, because incarceration is so costly.
He said Baker “doesn’t appear to have any data to back up the assertion that there’s a problem.”