Dangerous criminals need to be held without bail. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in Massachusetts courts.
Our bail system is again under scrutiny because of the release of dangerous defendants on little or no bail.
It is very sad that it takes tragedies to focus on the need for bail reform, but this is an important issue that requires change. There is currently no consistency to the application of the state’s bail laws by the judiciary. This results in dangerous defendants being released back into our communities too frequently.
Most people charged with crimes in Massachusetts are released on no bail. This is appropriate in many cases, based on the nature of the charges and the defendant’s lack of a criminal record.
However, dangerous defendants are released every day, and this needs to stop. The public has a right to be protected from dangerous defendants without qualification.
Why does this happen?
The traditional approach to bail on serious cases was to ask the court to set a high cash bail that most defendants could not make. Until recently, it was generally the practice of the court to set high cash bail in most serious cases. In theory, the high cash bail was based on the nature of the charges and to assure the defendant’s appearance in court. In reality, high bail served the purpose of holding defendants that posed a danger to the community.
This was the general practice of prosecutors and judges until late last summer, when the Supreme Judicial Court issued the Brangan decision. The decision emphasized that judges must consider a defendant’s financial resources when setting cash bail and reiterated that dangerousness was not a reason for setting high cash bail.
Ironically, Brangan did not drastically change existing bail law. However, judges have been applying Brangan in an erratic manner. This has resulted in the release of many dangerous defendants. The release of defendant Mickey Rivera is one example of the problems with the cash bail system for dangerous defendants. By misapplying Brangan, a Fall River Superior Court judge reduced Rivera’s bail from $35,000 to $1,000. This bail reduction led to Rivera’s release and ultimately to the death of new father, Kevin Quinn, on Cape Cod. Mickey Rivera should have remained held because of the serious charges he faced and his criminal record.
Setting cash bail to hold dangerous defendants is arbitrary and outdated. The solution is to hold dangerous criminals without bail after a hearing, REGARDLESS OF THEIR FINANCIAL MEANS . Whether rich or poor, defendants should be held without bail if they are determined to be a danger to the community. The cash bail system can be reserved for defendants who are not dangerous, but still pose a default risk based on their criminal history.
In the early 1990s, the Legislature enacted the dangerousness statute, which allowed prosecutors to request that a dangerous defendant be held without bail for certain crimes. These primarily were crimes that involved the use of force and drug trafficking offenses.
There should no longer be any limitation on a prosecutor’s ability to request a dangerousness hearing if the facts warrant it. For example, a convicted sex offender accosting minors for sex cannot be held as a danger because the crime is not included in the law.
A major obstacle to keeping a dangerous defendant in custody without bail is the law’s time limits. I filed legislation to increase the time limit to one year in superior court, consistent with our speedy trial rule. With the help of the Legislature, the time limit was increased to 180 days in superior court cases. While I am grateful for that change, the time frame must be increased to one year in both the district and superior courts. Any rational attorney would agree that cases in superior court, where the most dangerous defendants are prosecuted, cannot be tried within six months. Unless this unrealistic time limit is expanded beyond the current 180 days in superior court and 120 days in district court, we will continue to see dangerous defendants released back into our communities.
Another reform that is needed is related to bail revocation. Currently, if a defendant is out on bail for a crime and commits a new crime, the bail can be revoked for 60 or 90 days. In order for this to occur, the court must find the defendant is a danger to the community. Many defendants are released back to the streets when the time period elapses. This is unacceptable, and creates the risk of more crime and violence in our communities.
The solution is simple. Defendants whose bail is revoked by a judge for committing new crimes or violating conditions of release should be held without bail until the cases are resolved. This does not mean that every defendant out on bail should have their bail revoked if they are accused of a new crime. But if the defendant is deemed dangerous, that defendant should be held in jail until the resolution of his or her cases. They should not be held for what amounts to “a kindergarten timeout” and then released back into society only to commit new crimes.
The people who suffer the most from the release of dangerous individuals live in our cities. They are often subject to repeated assaults and intimidations because dangerous individuals are released back into their midst. This undermines the fabric of our communities and the public’s inherent right to be protected from dangerous individuals.
None of the proposed solutions are complex changes to the existing bail laws. The continued release of dangerous defendants undermines the credibility of the judicial system. It is time to reform our bail laws to adequately protect the public.
Thomas M. Quinn III is the district attorney for Bristol County.