Sure, it’s hard to ignore the blatantly political timing of Governor Charlie Baker’s just-filed pretrial detention bill. But that’s not to say there aren’t parts of it that merit serious consideration.
The attempt to revamp the laws governing the use of dangerousness hearings, making it more likely that those with long and violent criminal histories will be denied bail, comes in the wake of several recent tragedies where defendants were released on low or no bail only to subsequently be charged with murder. Two of those cases involved the murders of police officers in Weymouth and Yarmouth, Michael Chesna and Sean Gannon.
Much of the hue and cry that followed those and other cases involving subsequent killings, focused on the judges who, not being clairvoyant, didn’t anticipate the nightmares that would follow. And a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court has made it clear that bail isn’t intended to be punitive, or a substitute for a dangerousness hearing, but merely to assure that a defendant shows up for trial.
So some of what Baker is proposing is to give prosecutors more flexibility and judges better information about the defendant standing in front of them.
“If you want to hold judges accountable, give them a toolbox with more information,” Baker said at a news conference last week to announce the bill’s filing.
Standing with Baker, in addition to police chiefs from Weymouth and Yarmouth, was Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who insisted, “These reforms will bring a sense of justice to the community and to the victims.”
And he indicated his frustration when “we arrest them and within days we see them out on the street again with a stay-away order and a GPS bracelet.”
The bill would also create a new felony offense for cutting off one of those court-ordered GPS devices.
But its prime focus is on expanding the list of offenses that provide grounds for a dangerousness hearing, including prior serious or violent crimes, following the federal model, and whether the person is likely to attempt to obstruct justice — as useful a tool against gang members as it has been against Paul Manafort.
This is merely the start of what is likely to be a long debate about the bill’s myriad of details. Lawmakers could also draw on data-driven law enforcement tools that seek to measure dangerousness, so that judges have better information on which to base a decision.
Thankfully, this isn’t a partisan issue. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez told the Globe that he also thinks the current criteria for seeking dangerousness hearings are narrow. And, he added, “I think it’s appropriate and makes sense to consider expanding that criteria.”
The idea of making it easier to detain suspects most likely to be a danger to the community while making bail lower and more affordable for those who aren’t may seem counterintuitive. It isn’t. A number of states are already moving in that direction, including New Jersey, New Mexico, and Kentucky.
Late last month, California became the first state to abolish cash bail, setting up a three-tiered system for classifying suspects into low-, medium-, and high-risk categories as determined by its unique Pretrial Assessment Services.
It allows detention “if there is a substantial likelihood that no condition or combination of conditions of pretrial supervision will reasonably assure public safety or the appearance of the person in court.”
The Massachusetts Legislature, now meeting only informally until the end of the year, is unlikely to do a deep dive into the Baker bill any time soon. No matter who is governor next year, improving the way the state makes dangerousness determinations would be a smart response to this year’s tragedies.