BOSTON (SHNS) – House Democrats on Saturday roundly rejected a Gov. Charlie Baker plan to overhaul how criminal defendants can be deemed dangerous and detained, spiking his last-minute effort to attach the measure to one of their criminal justice reform priorities.
The House voted Saturday to shoot down a state budget amendment Baker sent them (H 5112) seeking to append a narrower version of Baker’s so-called dangerousness bill — which lawmakers already sent to a dead-end study — to a provision offering no-cost communications to incarcerated people and their families.
Baker and his deputies argued the amendment could form a compromise with the Legislature and address concerns of victims who have described living in fear, but Judiciary Committee Co-chair Rep. Michael Day called the rewrite of the original bill (H 4290), which had drawn significant concerns among civil rights advocates, “a bad proposal that, if enacted in its current form, would likely substantially increase the rate and duration of pretrial detention.”
“This current proposal would give prosecutors an unbelievable amount of power by enabling them in effect to leverage a plea bargain offer with the threat of pretrial imprisonment during the course of the trial itself,” Day, a Stoneham Democrat, said. “It’s unnecessary.”
The House voted 31-122 to reject Baker’s amendment. Every Republican and Democrat Reps. Colleen Garry of Dracut, David Robertson of Tewksbury, Paul Tucker of Salem and Jeffrey Turco of Winthrop voted in favor of the governor’s proposal.
The Senate is expected to reject Baker’s amendment as well. Senators will return to action at 11 a.m. Sunday for the final day of formal sessions in the 2021-2022 term.
The branches are poised to return to Baker the underlying budget language requiring correctional officials to make phone calls, video calls and other electronic communications available free of charge.
That proposal was one of the top legislative priorities this session for the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, whose members on Friday gathered to criticize Baker.
Caucus chair Rep. Chynah Tyler said the use of dangerousness hearings, sometimes referred to as Section 58A hearings, disproportionately impacts communities of color.
In Bristol County, Tyler said, people of color faced 58A hearings at three times the rate of white defendants; in Berkshire County, the rate of dangerousness hearings was four times as high for nonwhite defendants as white defendants, she said.
About 15 percent of Middlesex County’s residents are people of color, but they represent 52 percent of cases involving dangerousness hearings, according to Tyler. And in Suffolk County, home to Boston and the State House, 90 percent of dangerousness cases are for defendants of color, who are only 48 percent of the population.
“It simply sounds like a racist system to me,” the Roxbury Democrat said.
“Our governor is not recognizing the victimization that our communities experience day in and day out by being overpoliced,” added fellow BLLC member Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley of Mattapan. “It is abhorrent and an abomination that he would even try to tie this to no-cost calls, when it is the lifeline that our families are able to connect with those on the outside. Data and statistics and study after study show that when there is family contact, it reduces recidivism.”
The governor’s amendment would have expanded the list of offenses for which prosecutors could seek a dangerousness hearing and detain a suspect before trial to include alleged sex crimes involving children and other charges.
It also would have allowed a prosecutor to seek a dangerousness hearing any time during the process, not just during arraignment, opened the door for a dangerousness detention to last for the duration of a case, criminalized removal of a GPS ankle bracelet, and required victims to be notified before someone charged with abuse is released.
Republican Rep. Alyson Sullivan, who previously joined Baker in support of his standalone bill, described her own history of facing domestic violence in a speech to her colleagues Saturday calling for a favorable vote.
Sullivan said her abuser was arrested and charged with an offense that allowed prosecutors to seek a dangerousness hearing.
“I was lucky, definitely one of the lucky ones. What saved my life is that he was so well-known to the prosecutor’s office and local law enforcement as a violent and very dangerous person,” Sullivan said. “However, even though my abuser was being held, there was a race against the clock because under the dangerousness statute, you can only be held for a certain period of time. Everyone knew that if this case was not finished before that time ended, I may not be in front of you today.”
The Judiciary Committee’s decision to spike Baker’s bill with a study order prompted a string of jabs and barbs between Baker, who on several occasions this year has convened events with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to advocate for the bill, and lawmakers.
Baker accused Day and fellow committee chair Sen. Jamie Eldridge of giving survivors a “harsh, cold and callous response” to their support of the measure — language that Springfield Rep. Carlos Gonzalez parroted at the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus’s event.
“It’s cold to pit the victims that I heard from that were part of the tours the governor did, including in Springfield and other areas, with those who are incarcerated and don’t have an opportunity to pay for phone calls,” Gonzalez said. “It’s also harsh, it’s very harsh, to use the strategy at the last minute to push your bill and take away something that we thought you had agreed on to provide those free calls for those inmates. And it’s callous to stop conversations at the last minute, because I think that Chairmen Day and Eldridge have been willing to sit at the table, and hopefully with the Black and Latino Caucus — that’s an invitation I make, we make to the governor, and hopefully we can get some pretrial detention legislation. If you want to call it dangerous, bail hearing legislation, we can do so.”
Saturday’s legislative action will now force Baker to make an up-or-down decision on the free phone calls measure on its merits alone.
Baker would not say this week if his amendment was a signal to lawmakers they could only win his signature on the proposal if they agreed to some form of his dangerousness bill. “I’m hoping that they choose to do the right thing here,” he said.
In his amendment letter, Baker was more critical of the push to eliminate charges on communications in correctional facilities.
“Providing free phone calls, a benefit our state government provides to no one else, to inmates while dismissing the pleas of victims of crime is contrary to the traditions of, and frankly beneath the dignity of, the Massachusetts Legislature,” he wrote.