BOSTON — Lawmakers are facing calls to overhaul Massachusetts’ system of dangerousness hearings: from some survivors of domestic violence who say there aren’t enough protections for victims, to academics and activists who point to the spike in Black and Hispanic people facing detention hearings in recent years.
In 2017, a pivotal Supreme Judicial Court decision curbed judges’ ability to set steep cash bails.
And in 2018, lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system that set strict guidelines for bail with the goal of diverting more people to treatment and programming.
Democrats and several criminal justice reform groups cheered both steps as key to reducing mass incarceration.
But five years later, 25 Investigates finds a steep increase in the number of Black and Hispanic criminal defendants facing what are known as dangerousness hearings: when prosecutors ask judges to detain someone behind bars for as long as 300 days or longer before trial.
“We’re holding more Black and brown people, so we disrupt them more: Black and brown families,” community organizer David Baxter told Boston 25 Investigative Reporter and Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh in an interview.
“The conclusion is that even the reforms have benefitted white people,” Baxter said, adding: “You can’t circumvent reform policies – because that’s what I see happening. They are using the 58a statute as a way to circumvent the reform, the bail reforms.”
‘We did not expect the stark numbers on the racial disparities.’
In 2022, Massachusetts prosecutors filed dangerousness requests in District Court against 1,130 Black people. That’s a 78% increase from 636 in 2018.
Hispanic people saw a 55% increase: from 805 in 2018 to 1,250 in 2022.
Meanwhile, white people only saw a 6% increase: from 1,474 in 2018 to 1,559.
That’s according to 25 Investigates’ analysis of data obtained from the trial court system through a public records request.
Massachusetts’ trial court system doesn’t release data about how often people are being detained or for how long following dangerousness hearings.
State and county corrections data shows Massachusetts has slashed its levels of pretrial detention over the past six years: from 4,744 people in April 2017 to 3,977 people in April 2023. That’s a 16% decrease.
The number of white people held pretrial has plummeted 37%: from 2,182 to 1,379 in that same time period.
But - pretrial detention of Hispanic people jumped 38%: from 923 to 1,278.
Black people saw no significant drop in pretrial detention: from 1,159 to 1,152.
“In other words, the decrease in the pretrial population since 2017 has been basically entirely among white people,” said Katy Naples-Mitchell, program director of the Program on Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Black and Hispanic people are also disproportionately detained while awaiting trial compared to white people, 25 Investigates has found.
Hispanic and Black people represent 12.8% and 9.3% of the state’s population - but comprise one-third and 29% of the pretrial population, respectively.
White people make up 80% of the nearly 7 million people in Massachusetts - but just one-third of the nearly 4,000 people detained pretrial as of April 1.
Naples-Mitchell said even a day behind bars can upend a person’s life.
“Jail interrupts social supports and medications, family obligations, unemployment,” Naples-Mitchell said. “It has traumatic consequences for children of incarcerated parents.”
The data uncovered by 25 Investigates troubled top Democratic lawmakers, and raises the question of whether Massachusetts’ bail reform efforts have helped all residents equally.
“When you look at the disproportionate number of people of color who are impacted by 58A, overwhelmingly impacted, it’s not like it’s close,” Arnie Lucinda Stewart, Deputy Chief Counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said. “The data bears it out that it is clear that systemic bias is built into the Commonwealth moving for 58A.”
Rep. Michael Day, the House Chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers expected the rate of dangerousness hearings to go up after the 2017 court decision.
But he said the racial disparities were a surprise.
“So we expected the numbers to go up as the DA’s were starting to use 58A as it was intended, with procedural safeguards in place,” Day, whose district includes Middlesex County, said. “We did not expect the stark numbers on the racial disparities to appear. Now that they have, and as we’re seeing those numbers continue to come back, we’re in touch with the district attorneys, many of whom are reevaluating their practices with respect to data. And we’re looking at any statutory fixes that are necessary as well.”
‘The bill was over the top’
The state’s dangerousness hearing law – also known as 58A - dates back to the 90s.
But prosecutors in Massachusetts are resorting to dangerousness hearings more than ever.
Massachusetts saw 4,196 dangerousness requests in district courts statewide in 2022 – a 36% increase from 3,075 in 2018.
Prosecutors can ask courts to hold dangerousness hearings for people accused of felonies that involve actual, attempted, threatened or risk of physical force: including burglary and arson.
A judge can order someone to be held behind bars for 120 in District Court or 180 days in Superior Court – or a combined 300 days. And in some cases, prosecutors can ask to detain people longer.
Judges can also order someone released with a GPS monitor and other conditions, including batterers’ intervention programs or mental health treatment.
Other eligible crimes include:
- misdemeanors and felonies involving abuse
- witness intimidation
- a third DUI violation
- violating certain restraining orders
- Certain drug trafficking crimes (selling drugs to minors or inducing a child to sell controlled drugs, or trafficking over 2,000 pounds of marijuana, synthetic opioids, or other drugs)
- Certain animal cruelty crimes (“willfully and maliciously” killing an animal, overworking and torturing animals, possessing or training fighting animals)
- Certain firearm crimes (possession of a firearm without a license, possession of a machine gun or sawed-off shotgun, multiple )
But some domestic violence survivors say Massachusetts’ dangerousness hearings law isn’t strong enough to protect them from the people who are threatening to harm them.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Baker failed to get lawmakers to pass a bill that would have vastly expanded the use of dangerousness hearings.
Some of Baker’s more controversial proposals included fingerprinting every person arrested in Massachusetts, allowing courts to detain people until trial and allowing courts to consider an individual’s entire criminal record in detention hearings.
His bill died last summer in a tense legislative showdown, with Democrats tying Baker’s plan with a bill he didn’t support to provide free prison calls. Legislative leaders said Baker refused to budge or compromise on a slimmed down package.
“The pushback really was that despite conversations with former Gov. Baker and his staff, there was no recognition that the bill was rather over the top,” Sen. James Eldridge, Senate Chair of the Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee, said.
One big hold-up for the Democratic-controlled Legislature: warnings from advocacy groups including the ACLU and a statewide domestic violence and sexual assault coalition that Baker’s bill would deepen racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Massachusetts’ dangerousness hearing law is far from unique: New York is the only state that doesn’t allow judges to detain defendants who are ruled potentially dangerous.
But Andrea James, a prison abolitionist and founder of the Roxbury-based National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said the push to expand dangerousness hearings runs counter to a growing push to reduce incarceration in Massachusetts and nationwide.
“We’ve been working for years to decrease the incarceration populations,” James said. “And curiously enough, in Massachusetts, where jail populations, for instance, have been decreasing for some time now, the dangerousness hearings still have been increasing.”
And some advocates for domestic violence survivors said Baker’s bill would have been so broad that it would have made it much easier for alleged perpetrators to accuse victims of abuse.
“There are groups like Jane Doe Inc. that had opposed this bill last session, and I think in part because of concerns about how victims would potentially be prosecuted using this statute,” Naples-Mitchell said, referring to Jane Doe Inc., which is also known as The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. “That abusers would accuse victims or survivors of harm of being involved in a kind of mutual abuse, which is also a common pattern. That people could then be detained who were truly victims of abuse.”
‘What can we do…?’
Still, an informal group of survivors are pressing lawmakers to make at least some changes to the dangerousness law, even if it’s far short of Baker’s legislation.
“We just wanted that conversation, of what can we do, if you don’t agree with this?” said one domestic violence survivor, whom 25 Investigates is calling Colleen to protect her safety.
Among their top priorities: requiring swift notification of a defendant’s release from 58A detention to crime victims, increasing the penalty for cutting a GPS to a felony up from a misdemeanor, allowing prosecutors to request dangerousness hearings at any time during a court proceeding and making more sexual offenses like human trafficking and child pornography eligible for dangerousness hearings.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have already filed at least half a dozen bills that include parts of those proposals.
Prosecutors across Massachusetts – including Democrats such as Bristol County District Attorney Tom Quinn, Essex County District Paul Tucker and former Suffolk County District Attorney and current U.S. District Attorney Rachael Rollins – have said the ruling has created a dangerousness loophole that makes it harder to protect the most vulnerable children.
“A reasonable expansion would include some of these cases which include abuse to children under 16,” Tucker, a Democrat, said in an interview. “Why not at least put these in place so the judge can consider them? Right now, they can’t even consider them. They may or they may not. At least give them the opportunity.”
Tucker said his office has had some cases where individuals are charged with possessing thousands of child pornography images – but his office can’t try to detain them for dangerousness.
“I think reasonable minds can come to some type of understanding on this,” Tucker said. “I don’t think anybody on either side of the debate wants dangerous people in the community. But how we get there, in my view, is due process and judges who have the tools to be able to do it and to consider it.”
The chairs of the Judiciary Committee plan to hold hearings in coming months on dangerousness bills.
House Chair Day said there could be room for compromise.
“We see opportunities here to increase or to include, I should say, certain crimes that I think nobody would quibble with,” Day said.
It’s unclear whether new Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat and the state’s former top law enforcement official, will take a stance on dangerousness hearings. Her office said she’ll review any bill that hits her desk.
Eldridge said Democrats remain chiefly concerned about how to best tweak the dangerousness law without further exacerbating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“If we open it up to too many crimes, unfortunately, some prosecutors will use that in a way that disproportionately impacts poor black and brown people,” Eldridge, whose district includes parts of Middlesex and Worcester County, said.
“As statistics show, disproportionately black and brown people are being held under the dangerousness law,” Eldridge said . “So there are already some flaws. And so I think the bigger question is, do we want to just automatically expand it and not revisit addressing those racial disparities?”
One bill filed by Democratic Sen. John Velis, whose district includes Hampden and Hampshire counties, would require the trial court to collect and send data on dangerousness hearings to the Secretary of Public Safety, who would analyze for potential disparities.
“Such analysis shall examine the treatment of offenders and determine whether offenders who are charged with the same offenses and who have similar criminal histories are treated equally to one another, or whether there is disparate impact by race, gender, or ethnicity,” reads the bill.
‘He would kill me if I tried to leave’
Survivors advocating for expansion of dangerousness hearings say they can be a powerful tool to protect people facing the immediate threat of violence.
That includes Rep. Alyson Sullivan-Almeida, who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
As a teenager, Sullivan-Almeida began a relationship with an older man. The abuse began in her early 20s.
“It slowly started with controlling where I went, who I hung out with, what I wore,” Sullivan-Almeida, a Republican whose district includes Plymouth County, said. “Then it got to an escalation of when I got to see family, when I didn’t get to see family. And then it got to a point where he was able to really do things that he wouldn’t get, he knew he wasn’t going to get punished for.”
She said the abuse escalated until one New Year’s Day, when he beat her enough to leave her with a broken nose, bite marks all over her ears and hands, bruised eyes and a slice mark from a steak knife on her chin.
“He said it previously, if he couldn’t have me, no one else would,” she said. “He would kill me if I tried to leave.”
A friend ended up picking her up, and Sullivan-Almeida soon after told an Abington police officer what happened and went to the police station.
“One of the police officers said my abuser’s name and I froze up in fear of what was going to happen to me if I continued down this path,” she said.
Sullivan-Almeida, now 35, said he was arrested in 2009 and faced charges including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, strangulation and witness intimidation.
Prosecutors requested a dangerousness hearing.
Despite restraining orders, Sullivan-Almeida said he called her and said he felt sorry and didn’t mean it. She learned prosecutors had recordings of jailhouse calls where he instructed her what story to give.
“I’m in survival mode, right?” she said. “So, I’m in love with this individual. I believe I’m in love with him. I believe that he’s going to change. So now I start with, you know, blaming my parents, blaming my friend. It’s their fault. It’s not his fault. So I wasn’t cooperative during the dangerousness hearing.”
Still, he was found dangerous, and ended up pleading guilty. She found out that he had other restraining orders against him from other women.
“They knew that if he got out in those 120 days, after those 120 days, he was going to kill me,” she said.
‘We just want to be okay’
First elected in 2018, Sullivan-Almeida shared her experience as a survivor of domestic violence in her maiden speech on the House floor.
“You always worry about whether people believe you,” she said. “Will people doubt you? Will people blame you?”
She began supporting the dangerousness hearing legislation backed by Baker, who held forums featuring numerous survivors of domestic violence.
Survivors said they’ve been left unsafe and fearing for their lives due to failings in the criminal justice system.
Some of those survivors told 25 Investigates that they felt like lawmakers dismissed or minimized their experiences. They wonder why lawmakers can’t find any consensus, and they hope their stories will help.
“Can we open a dialogue with each other?” survivor Colleen told Boston 25 Investigative Reporter and Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh. “All the survivors that spoke at these roundtables that had to tell these horrible stories, that are our lives still to this day, and be told that we’re a PR stunt…”
“We’re part of the commonwealth, and so are my kids,” Colleen said. “You know, we just want to be okay. And just to feel joy and not be hunted openly.”
Another domestic violence survivor, whom 25 Investigates is calling Marie to protect her safety, said she met her perpetrator in the fall of 2015. She said he sexually assaulted and threatened her constantly, while cycling in and out of jail when he wasn’t on the run.
“He said: ‘You know, make no mistake, a restraining order is not going to keep you safe,” Marie told Boston 25 Investigative Reporter and Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh. “Nothing will.”
“He told me the piece of paper is not going to make you safe,” she continued. “So many offenders violate repeatedly seven, eight, nine times with no repercussions.”
She said by 2017, she ended up so afraid for her life that she reached out to the courts.
“You’re horrified,” Marie continued. “You’re living in complete fear. It’s a fight or flight every single time. And it’s just, you’re in constant fear. And when you see that the system’s not working for you, it’s no matter how severe the violent felony charges he was getting. It was always 90 days out and 60 for good time.”
She said if she wanted to press charges against him, she wanted assurance he would be kept away from her.
“I contacted the courts, contacted the police, and I said, ‘I’m going to die,’” Marie said. “He needs to be held. If I’m going to go for charges, I need to be protected here. And I was pleading and pleading and I went in for the protection order.. They put out the warrants, they picked him up and they did finally hold him on dangerousness.”
Marie said he is now in prison, and that he has an extensive record of charges including for physical abuse.
Rep. Sullivan-Almeida said she’s hoping to muster support for a narrow version of Baker’s bill that addresses concerns raised by critics.
“My intent, right, this legislative session is to really dive into some of those push backs that we were having,” she said.
‘He’s been doing this his entire adult life’
A few of the proposals sought by lawmakers this year include more controversial parts of Baker’s bill.
For example, some bills include Baker’s push to hold people until trial.
But advocacy groups warned that would lead to too many people behind bars – at a time when lengthy court delays are not uncommon.
25 Investigates previously covered the case of Tyler Olivier, who was held for 300 days on a dangerousness hearing for an August 2021 stabbing that still hasn’t been brought to trial. Olivier has denied wrongdoing in the stabbing.
Another flashpoint in Baker’s bill: critics slammed it as so broad that a decades-old misdemeanor could be used as a pretext for detaining someone.
Now, some domestic violence survivors want to allow courts to consider up to five years of an individual’s criminal record in dangerousness hearings.
“I heard throughout my trial, which was frustrating, ‘Oh, we can’t bring in his previous record, It’s prejudicial,’” Marie said. “And I’m saying he’s been doing this his whole adult life.”
Marie pointed to her perpetrator’s long record of charges for violent crimes, and said being a repeat offender should be allowed as a reason to detain someone.
“A lot of times the courts will be like, ‘Oh, sorry, that’s the law,’” Marie said. “I don’t know how many times I heard that throughout my trial and it was so frustrating. And it’s like, well, when does it change? And then the next word was ‘Well, be safe.’ Like, ‘Good luck.’ Almost like a pat on the back.”
Marie and Colleen said they want more focus on help for victims of violent crime, particularly those from marginalized communities.
Victims of violent crime tend to be disproportionately low-income. (A 2014 DOJ study found that poor urban blacks and whites have similar rates of violence).
“Look, we come in every color, every shape, every size, every age,” Colleen said. “It doesn’t matter what you make.”
‘People are punished while they are presumed innocent’
Criminal defendants have a chance to fight dangerousness requests at special hearings early on in the court process.
But allowing prosecutors to point to an individual’s criminal record could exacerbate constitutional concerns already raised by defense attorneys.
Murat Erkan, a defense attorney and former Essex County prosecutor, said the use of dangerousness hearings should be far more restricted in Massachusetts and limited to only the most extreme cases.
Erkan said the hearings create immense pressure for defendants to plead guilty rather than wait behind bars for a trial.
“People are punished while they are presumed innocent and relieved of punishment at the time when the government has to prove that they’re guilty,” Erkan said. “The system has to change.”
And he said judges also feel heightened pressure to hold people in the name of public safety.
Defense attorney Barry Bisson said it’s already tough for people to fight detention requests at an early point in the court process when prosecutors have an upper hand, discovery is ongoing and defendants are just putting together their cases.
“One of the issues is that a judge can use what’s called hearsay as long as that hearsay is reliable,” Bisson said. “So the government, the Commonwealth can use police reports, probation reports and not even just police reports from that court, but police reports from any court in regards to crimes that a person has allegedly done in the past. And so it’s kind of hard sometimes to combat that hearsay because you really can’t question a police report.”
Bob McGovern, spokesperson for the Committee for Public Counsel Services said fighting a dangerousness request can hamstring the defense’s strategy – and can be costly.
“You’re also forcing defense attorneys to effectively show their hand and say what their defense is going to be,” McGovern said. “They have to send investigators out. It’s a strategy moment as well. Do I show my entire hand right now because I don’t want my guy to sit in jail now for an untold number of weeks or months?”
Dangerousness hearings offer “somewhat of a blanket opportunity for prosecutors to hold on to somebody based solely on an early look at what the fact pattern appears to be,” said James, founder of the Roxbury-based The National Council.
Arnie Lucinda Stewart, of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said public defenders are seeing a trend where criminal defendants are being held for as many as 3 to 7 days before a dangerousness hearing is even held.
“They’re sort of just dragged through the system for 120 or 180 days with this label of dangerousness,” Stewart said.
“It’s the othering of our clients that allows this kind of stripping away of rights to occur,” Stewart said. “Because they don’t see them as citizens who deserve a full process like any other human being would deserve.”
‘If it worked, we would have a much safer society…’
James’ organization’s work includes transformative justice – programs where participants work on ways to address person-to-person harm without involving police, courts or prisons.
The goal is mediation, empowerment and solutions rather than incarceration.
“You’re sitting in the most incarcerated corridor in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” James said, during an interview at her organization’s Roxbury office. “I don’t know if you’re aware of that. But there’s barely a family that hasn’t been affected by the criminal legal system.”
James, a Roxbury native, said there’s no “bright line” between victims and people who cause harm in her communities.
“You can have a family who has a son who’s currently incarcerated, for instance, for taking the life of somebody else,” she said. “Meanwhile, that same mother has a son, one son, two sons who have also lost their lives to murder.”
James said her focus is on ending cycles of violence.
“Victims, yes, we wrap our arms around them,” James said. “If you’ve lost a loved one, there is no greater pain. But at the same time… we don’t want this to ever happen to you, another one of your loved ones still living. But we don’t want it to happen to anybody’s loved ones still living. "
James said lawmakers should instead invest in housing, food, job training and other programs.
“If we’re only talking about dangerousness hearings and building more jail beds and prison beds and cages to put people in, and we’re also not pouring into,” James said. “Yes, don’t build a new prison, but also: yes to $50 million for reimagining communities. If we don’t pause and talk about that, we’re always going to have people that cause very significant harm to other human beings.”
She said community-based programs work much better than prisons when it comes to helping people turn their lives around.
“Our response to those things from the criminal law system has been prosecution and at every cost possible, the use of holding people in jails and prisons,” James said “Now, if it worked, we would have a much safer society all the way around.”
‘What else is there?’
It was 2003.
David Baxter was arrested in a case involving non-fatal gun violence and drugs in the Berkshires. He was accused of running a drug organization.
“American ideal is supposed to be: innocent till proven guilty,” Baxter said in an interview.
The prosecution asked for a dangerousness hearing to hold him.
“They held me the whole time, the year before my trial,” Baxter said. “They were supposed to give me a 90-day review.”
25 Investigates reviewed Baxter’s court docket, which didn’t show Baxter had any review hearings where courts could re-consider his 58a detention.
“It was bad,” Baxter. “I was too young. I didn’t understand at that time. I was 24, so I had no knowledge.”
Baxter said dangerousness hearings were rare at the time- particularly for Berkshire County.
“They gave me a bail and I posted bail,” Baxter said. “It was a big thing when they were trying to hold me. They couldn’t use bail to hold me when they realized that I come from a well-off family.”
Baxter said his lack of knowledge about dangerousness hearings kept him in the dark about his legal options – including asking for alternatives like house arrest.
“I don’t have a record. I have a mediocre record,” Baxter said. “So I’m a danger to who and what? I do know now from the 58A statute that even if you’re deemed dangerous, there are other things judges can do to ensure the safety of society. And none of that was taken into consideration, in my case.”
Baxter said being detained a year before his trial upended his life.
“I was a first-year college student,” he said. “College was out the window.”
“Unfortunately, I was living the lifestyle back then, but I also come from a family of academics,” Baxter said. “We take pride in that.”
He had to rely on his family financially and emotionally.
“My daughter is four years old, so there’s no work, there’s no schooling,” he continued. “So the future becomes dim.”
“If I didn’t get convicted, how was I going to start over?” Baxter said. “Can’t go back and knock on a college door like, ‘Hey, I’m innocent.’”
Baxter ended up with a 45 year prison sentence.
“I have never in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections met anyone with that type of sentence for the same crime,” Baxter said.
Baxter used his time behind bars to pursue a college education and a career in community organizing, motivational speaking and restorative justice.
“So it put me down a path of - I used to say self-destruction, but I understand now that path of self-destruction was really my path to self-development,” Baxter said. “That’s because I took matters into my own hands for my personal growth.”
By 2013, Baxter appealed his sentence.
“I appealed my sentence because it was just outrageous,” Baxter said. “Even the staff in the department, nobody could wrap that around their head.”
Baxter maintains his innocence in the non-fatal shootings he was arrested for, but says he did helm a drug operation from 1998 to 2003.
The appeals court ended up reversing the charge for one of the shootings.
After years of legal proceedings, Baxter was released last summer.
He served 19 years: from June 2003 to June 2022.
Baxter, now 43, feels the system failed to see him as anything more than his charges.
“It’s hard for me to sit here in front of you and advocate for someone to be locked up because I’ve been in prison and anyone who once knew freedom should never know the horrors of prison,” Baxter said.
He said he also feels for people who are terrified of being hurt by others - like Colleen and Marie: “So I think I don’t have all the answers, but I know the women that you just spoke of, they have a right to be safe. They have a right to live their life in peace.”
He said he envisions a future where the American corrections system could look more similar to Germany’s, where rehabilitation is central.
“As a formerly incarcerated person, I believe some people, if they perpetuate a level of something, they need to be dealt with, whatever way that is, but they need to go somewhere and get help,” Baxter said. “I think if we reimagine what corrections look like, then maybe there is a place for corrections to a degree. As it stands now - absolutely not. It’s brutal.”
He’s now an advocate for restorative justice and alternatives for young people to the lifestyle that ended up costing him so much.
“I’ve helped many people with this get out of that lifestyle,” he said.
Baxter said he’s working in the “so-called hot spots” of Boston everyday.
“And I talk to these young men and I have heart-to-heart conversations with them,” Baxter said. “They don’t want to be out here. They ask me, what else is there?”
“We have a duty to answer that question to that 17 year old young man,” Baxter said. “What else is there?”
‘We’re just going to hold you absolutely.’
25 Investigates found disproportionately high increases in dangerousness hearings in communities across Massachusetts, including more rural towns far from the populous Boston metropolitan area.
Communities with the biggest spikes in dangerousness hearings over the last five years include Roxbury, Dorchester, Lawrence, Springfield, New Bedford, Quincy and Pittsfield.
In Hampden County, Springfield saw a fourfold increase: from 54 in 2018 to 205 in 2022.
Falmouth District Court saw 59 requests for dangerousness hearings in 2022, up from 12 in 2018.
In 2020, then-Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins – now U.S. Attorney – announced her office would increasingly seek to hold defendants on dangerousness grounds.
She pointed to efforts by groups like the Massachusetts Bail Fund to bail out defendants facing high cash bails.
“But bailing out a convicted sex offender and rapist, and then going home, is the act of a coward,” Rollins said at the time in a press release.
In October of 2020, Rollins said her office was amping up the use of dangerousness hearings for firearm charges amid a spate of gun violence.
Carlton Williams, a professor at Cornell Law School who’s worked as a public defender in Roxbury, said dangerousness hearings have become a more politically favorable option for prosecutors than costly bail.
“Because of the legal advancements that have happened and been made, because of the political pressure about the idea of bail, because of bail funds, they’ve moved on,” Williams said. “They say: ‘That’s a bad thing, we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re not going to be holding peope because they’re poor, we’re just going to hold you absolutely.”
Now, parts of Boston are seeing among the biggest increases in dangerousness hearings.
In Suffolk County, Dorchester District Court saw 126 dangerousness hearings in 2022.
That’s up from just 6 in 2018.
Roxbury saw 121 in 2022 – an increase from 10 in 2018.
Across Suffolk County, the number of dangerousness hearings for firearm offenses jumped from 6 in 2019 to 139 in 2022.
Crimes against persons rose from 42 to 133 in that time.
New Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden, a Democrat, said dangerousness requests make up a tiny fraction of the county’s nearly 17,700 district court cases in 2022 alone.
“You’re still innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “The 58a statute has been in existence for a long time, and it’s used for precisely the means that it’s outlined for: to protect people from danger at the hands of certain individuals if we believe they should be held.”
He called his office’s approach “very judicious and conservative.”
“Boston, Suffolk County, is the most diverse county in all of the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Hayden said. “That’s our strength. That’s a good thing. We’re always mindful of making sure that when we apply the dangerousness statute that we were doing it based on the offense and the charges that are alleged - not upon the race of the victim or the defendant in the case.”
Suffolk County has seen a drop in pretrial detention: from 904 on January 1, 2017 to 821 in April 2023.
The number of Black people detained pretrial has dipped from 436 in April 2017 to 401 in April 2023.
Hispanic defendants detained pretrial dropped from 267 to 201.
The number of white people held pretrial was flat: with roughly 180 white people as of April 2023.
Williams, who has represented defendants fighting 58A hearings, said Black and brown communities face higher rates of policing and are more likely to be seen as dangerous.
“If you go into Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, the people you see who are for the most part black, brown, all poor, that’s who you see get held on dangerousness,” Williams said. “Very rarely other people.”
Baxter, who lives in Boston, said he questions whether the spike in dangerousness hearings can be blamed on the demographics of neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester alone.
“Are we criminalizing the race?” Baxter said. “Because America has been criminalizing the black race forever. Is that what you’re saying?
He said he wants more focus on how to actually lower crime rates: “How is that going? Because you can’t hold them forever.”
“There’s no easy answer for this,” Baxter said. “Mr. Hayden has a very hard job, one I would never want.”
Hayden’s office moved to hold dangerousness hearings for at least eight individuals that weekend. That includes two people charged with carrying a loaded, large capacity firearm without a license.
“We’ve had innocent bystanders shot many times in incidents involving shooting,” he said. “And we always want to make sure that public safety is ensured.”
Williams questions the use of 58A hearings for unlicensed possession of firearms.
“This is a licensing issue,” Williams said. “People are in neighborhoods that they feel are dangerous. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do. It’s a criminal thing to do. But what about the enforcement of that and the violations of people’s Fourth Amendment rights?”
Prosecutors are increasingly using dangerousness requests for crimes against persons, weapons offenses and drug crimes.
In 2022, 531 people faced dangerousness hearings for weapons offenses.
That means 17% of the defendants with dangerousness hearings that year were charged with a weapons offense.
That’s up from 207 – or 7% of - defendants in 2018.
Weapons crimes landed 17% of defendants facing dangerousness requests in About 17% of all criminal defendants 2022 for weapons crimes, up from 7% in 2018.
About 83% of the defendants with 2022 dangerousness requests were charged with crimes against persons, which include assault and domestic violence. That’s up from about two-thirds of dangerousness requests in 2018.
Drug crimes are also a small but growing reason for detention requests: 238 defendants faced dangerousness hearings in 2022, up from 120 in 2018.
‘Increased at an unproportional rate’
25 Investigates reached out to every district attorney in Massachusetts for data and perspective on their use of dangerousness hearings. Multiple district attorneys declined our request for taped interviews.
In Essex County, new DA Paul Tucker told 25 Investigates he’s reviewing every detention request for fairness as they combat guns and fentanyl.
“For 58A, we’re checking into it and monthly now I get a report on all of the requests that we make,” Tucker said.
25 Investigates found some communities had an increase in dangerousness hearings for Hispanic people – but a decrease for white people.
For example, in Essex County, the number of Hispanic people facing hearings jumped from 331 in 2018 to 451 in 2022.
Over that same time frame, the number of white people with hearings dropped by 24.
Lowell saw a 56% increase in dangerousness hearings for Hispanic people from 2017 to 2022 and a 21% drop for white people.
Census data reviewed by 25 Investigates suggests that potential population shifts don’t account for the discrepancy in Lowell.
The Hispanic population in Lowell dipped 20% from 2017 to 2021, according to Census data. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population increased 10% statewide.
The data also showed that Black and Hispanic defendants are disproportionately facing dangerousness hearings.
Northern Berkshire saw the third biggest percentage increase in dangerousness hearings after Dorchester and Roxbury: from 6 in 2018 to 55 in 2022.
Black people make up just about 4% of all of Berkshire County’s population, according to Census data.
But Black people accounted for nearly one-fourth of the 55 dangerousness requests in 2022.
New Berkshire District Attorney Timothy Shugrue, a Democrat, said his predecessor eliminated the use of bail.
“During this time the rise in dangerousness hearings increased at an unproportional rate compared with the state,” Shugrue said in a statement to 25 Investigates.
Shugrue pointed to the 2018 bail reform’s strict guidelines for setting bails.
“My office is dedicated to using these guidelines,” he said. “The appropriate use of bail in conjunction with dangerousness hearings only when necessary, will keep our community safe.”
Elsewhere, Quincy, in Norfolk County, reported 111 dangerousness hearing requests, up from 36 in 2018.
David Traub, a spokesperson for Norfolk County District Attorney Timothy Cruz, a Republican, said that DA’s don’t take biographical or demographic data from defendants.
He said a bill filed several years ago would have directed the Trial Court to collect that information systematically and make it open to public inspection.
That bill died, but has been refiled this session with support from district attorneys for the counties of Bristol, Berkshire, Essex, Norfolk and Worcester along with the DA for northwest Massachusetts.
What the data says
25 Investigates dug into Census, crime and corrections data to paint a picture of current arrest trends and racial disparities in Massachusetts’ criminal justice system.
We found that:
ARRESTS ARE DOWN: The increase in detention hearings comes at a time when the number of people arrested in Massachusetts has been decreasing, according to crime data reported to the National Incident-Based Reporting System.
Arrests are down from roughly 107,000 in 2017 to 84,000 in 2022.
That’s a 21% drop.
The number of Black people arrested was essentially flat: from about 16,800 in 2017 to 16,750 in 2022 (The data doesn’t include a breakdown for Hispanic people).
White people saw a drop from about 85,600 arrests in 2017 to 62,600 in 2022: a 27% drop.
INCREASES IN PRETRIAL: Middlesex County has seen the sharpest rise in the overall number of people detained pretrial: 341 as of April 2023, up from 103 as of April 2017.
Berkshire County has also seen an increase from 96 to 120. The number of Black defendants held pretrial increased from 28 to 52, and for Hispanic defendants from 13 to 22.
White people saw a decrease from 54 to 44.
Franklin County also saw an overall increase in defendants with dangerousness hearings: from 60 to 91.
All other counties saw a decrease.
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