Dukakis-sponsored bill would tighten Massachusetts bail rules

Keeping criminals off the streets and out of circulation is often easier said than done. But more could be done - even in Massachusetts where the crime rate is down 7 percent in the past six years. One possible step, now being considered by state lawmakers, would restrict bail opportunities for convicted felons who are awaiting sentencing or have an appeal pending.

The measure, sponsored by Gov. Michael Dukakis, would require a trial judge to state in writing that he was confident the offender will not flee while out on bail. That document would also have to include a finding that while unconfined the convict would not pose a threat to the community or be likely to commit another crime.

Since it might be difficult for a judge to provide such assurances, it would almost certainly mean more convicts would stay locked up while awaiting sentencing.

And in cases where an appeal was pending, the judge, before granting bail, would have to state in writing that he felt there was a possibility that the appeal would be successful.

Despite strong support from the governor and leaders of the law-enforcement community, some judges seem to want no part of the proposal, which could make more work for them and in the process somewhat restrict their authority.

Similar opposition from the judiciary has long blocked another Dukakis-backed measure, the so-called presumptive sentencing bill, which would provide a range of sentences for most crimes. Under it a trial judge could impose a more lenient or stiffer penalty for a designated crime but would have to spell out the reasons for his actions.

Whether the bail-restriction measure gains passage could hinge on how hard Mr. Dukakis pushes for it once the presidential election is over. The legislation was filed by the governor when he was under attack by the Republican opposition for not being tough enough on criminals.

While it makes little sense to fill jails with those who pose no threat to society, there have been too many instances over the years where convicts have committed crimes while out on bail.

Perhaps bail guidelines should be revised and the amounts that must be posted increased, in addition to making bail itself less accessible to those found guilty of serious crimes, including drug trafficking.

Dukakis is also asking lawmakers to clear the way for opening the criminal records of an offender to his victims, the press, and the public, from the time of conviction, through imprisonment, probation parole, and for a period beyond. In the past such files have often been virtually unavailable because of red tape.

Once a convict had paid his debt to society and demonstrated good citizenship, his criminal records would be closed and remain off-limits to the public unless the individual were to be involved in a later felony.

But some lawyers, especially those who defend the accused, are concerned that information about someone's past activities might be misused. They suggest such records should be private and not open to whoever might want them.

Such arguments overlook the fact that the files to be opened belong to people who have committed crimes and about which the public has a right to know. Clearly, in some instances, the information could be especially useful to the victims of a crime.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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