Survivors Respond To Shelving Of “Dangerousness” Bill
Amid pointed criticism from survivors and a spat over how deliberations unfolded, lawmakers on Monday defended their decision to spike Gov. Charlie Baker's so-called dangerousness bill by arguing that it could subject defendants to unnecessary detention and would conflict with other criminal justice reforms.
In five "roundtable" events over the past seven months, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have called on the Legislature to advance Baker's proposal to overhaul how courts deem suspects dangerous, a designation that can lead to their detainment. But in the latest roundtable in the State House Library, three days after the Judiciary Committee once again stifled the measure, participants took aim at lawmakers.
One woman, who wanted to be identified only as Jo, said when she learned that lawmakers killed the measure again, she felt like she was "punched in the face."
"I had hoped by opening myself up this way, I would help the Judiciary Committee see what it was like to be a victim of abuse and the court system," Jo said about sharing her story. "Unfortunately, they did not hear me. Or did they? I don't know. I now wonder if they actually listened to any of us. Believing the co-chairs and the committee just did not listen is less hurtful for me and less evil, I suppose. Because if they did hear us and they listened to all the roundtable events and they heard our gut-wrenching stories of children being abused, women raped, stabbed and beaten by intimate partners, then I have to believe I spoke to cold, callous people who have no empathy or care for the well-being of our children or the thousands of victims who are abused."
"The action of the Judiciary Committee is shameful, it's insulting and it's disrespectful to all of us," Jo added.
Top Democrats who made the recommendation to kill the proposal for the third straight session contended that Baker's roundtable events glossed over several sections of a wide-ranging bill.
Other provisions in the legislation, which prompted warnings from several civil rights groups, would have required all people arrested to get fingerprinted, not just those arrested for felony charges, and allowed prosecutors to seek detention of suspects for any conviction in their past regardless of how much time elapsed. Sen. Jamie Eldridge said that latter section would allow a prosecutor to use a 15-year-old trespassing conviction "to detain someone even though that person may be a very different person now."
"This legislation does far more than the narrow issue that was the subject of the Administration's well-crafted public relations tour," Rep. Michael Day, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "Not reflected in the Governor's portrayal of this legislation was the widespread opposition and concerns we heard from colleagues, survivors and civil rights advocates alike about the problems with this bill; concerns that have been voiced clearly before when the Administration filed these proposals in previous sessions."
Four lawmakers dissented from the committee vote to send the bill (H 4290) to a study: Republican Rep. Alyson Sullivan, Democrat Rep. Colleen Garry, Democrat Sen. Cynthia Creem and Democrat Sen. John Velis, according to a committee aide.
Nine lawmakers on the committee voted in favor of the study order and three reserved their rights. The committee did not name those who endorsed the study or who declined to take a position.
Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who co-chairs the committee alongside Day, said the legislation contained "a number of severe concerns," including a significant expansion of the list of crimes for which suspects could be held in jail for 180 days and a "forever lookback" at any defendant's past conviction.
"There's a myriad of problems in the court system that need to be addressed," Eldridge told the News Service. "I think it's about making sure the courts and prosecutors are more responsive to the needs of domestic violence victims. There needs to be more support outside the court, whether that's safe homes, more funding for DV services, a better-trained law enforcement, versus an overly punitive approach that would sweep up a whole bunch of people that have nothing to do with domestic violence."
Baker blasted lawmakers in a statement on Friday, saying their decision "protects abusers at the expense of survivors," and ramped up the pressure by scheduling another event with survivors Monday.
At the start of the latest roundtable, which featured emotional accounts from survivors and a choked-up Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito thanking them for their courage, Baker said he believes "with all my heart that this issue is far more prevalent across the commonwealth than people understand."
"The state has not been there to look after you and to incorporate your concerns and your issues into its own policy and statutory framework," Baker told survivors. "A big part of what we are seeking to achieve here is to make it possible for you to believe the state is on your side."
The study order essentially guarantees that no action on Baker's proposal, a version of which he filed in each of the previous two sessions, will occur during his final year in office.
Day, a Stoneham Democrat, said the panel "attempted to work seriously with members of the administration" on potential changes to the bill but found their concerns "not meaningfully addressed."
His co-chair, Eldridge, said he never heard from the governor directly and never believed the administration would be open to scaling back sections that concerned some lawmakers.
"The communication from the executive branch was not a conversation around a narrower bill," Eldridge said in an interview. "It was a pretty consistent PR campaign to pass the whole bill. I did not speak to Gov. Baker on this bill this session. He did not call me. I did not get the perception that a compromise bill was considered acceptable."
Asked about Eldridge's comment and whether a compromise was ever on the table, Baker said, "That is a blatant misrepresentation of both fact and process. That is a blatant misrepresentation, period. It's not true."
"I plead with all of you to make these changes," another survivor named Tara said at Monday's event. "Take the control away from these abusers and stop them from laughing at our justice system, and allowing them the right to reoffend and to continue using the system in their favor. It makes no sense. What's a human life worth? What's your own life worth? ... And to not do it is just disgusting and sickening to me. In my opinion, you're either an abuser yourself or you know ones that you're protecting. That's all I have to say."
Baker said he has not given up hope and would work to ensure that lawmakers "get another look at this at some point" in other legislation on the move before the end of the session.
Both chairs did not slam the door on future action. Eldridge said he would be "certainly open" to considering "a more narrowly drawn bill" in the 2023-2024 session.
"As Governor Baker himself has written, 'the public square has plenty of opinions about how to help people and solve problems. Hear them all. Insight and knowledge come from curiosity and humility,' " Day said. "In that spirit, we will continue to work with our colleagues, with our district attorneys and with survivors and survivor groups on this issue and are optimistic those discussions will be fruitful."
Many civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU of Massachusetts opposed Baker's legislation, warning that its broadened scope would create disproportionate impacts on communities of color and expand the reach of the judicial system.
"In the criminal legal system, penalties are supposed to follow proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred. Dangerousness hearings flip that on its head," said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, in a statement. "Across the state there are hundreds of people, presumed innocent, who are sitting in jail. Many have been there for months. Expanding a law that allows the state to take your freedom before trial does not make our system better. It reinforces distrust in a system that we are trying to reform."
Another of Baker's criminal justice priorities, cracking down on distribution of sexually explicit images and video without a subject's consent, remains in legislative limbo as lawmakers rush toward the end of term.
Revenge Porn Bill Also Sidelined
The House in May unanimously approved legislation to prohibit distribution of what is often referred to as "revenge porn." Senate leaders have not signaled any plans to take up that bill, and Senate President Karen Spilka was noncommittal on the topic Monday.
"We'll have to see," Spilka said about a revenge porn ban. "There's several bills that senators want to take up. There's a lot of things on the horizon. There's a lot of things the Senate has done that we're hoping the House takes up as well. As you all noted, time is short, to be blunt. So we'll continue working, but I know we are looking at a lot of great bills and we'll get done and we'll get to the floor of the Senate and to the governor's desk as many as we possibly can."
Eldridge said he thinks it is "certainly possible" for the Senate to take up the House-approved bill before the end of the lawmaking term, though he said one concern is that action might "dramatically increase the number of minors that are swept up into being charged."
Massachusetts is one of only two states without a clear revenge porn statute on the books, supporters of a ban say. Asked why lawmakers have hesitated to act, Eldridge replied, "Probably, it's a case where law enforcement and, with all due respect, media have been very, very laser-focused on this even though it's not a particularly severe problem in Massachusetts."