When the press release arrived in our inbox about the use of videoconferencing at the Dukes County House of Corrections for bail review hearings, we had one thought: This isn’t already done?
At the urging of the regional administrative justice for Dukes, Barnstable, and Nantucket counties, Judge Robert Rufo, Sheriff Bob Ogden and newly elected clerk of courts T. George Davis agreed to install video equipment at the Edgartown jail to facilitate bail reviews for prisoners on the Island.
It’s a more efficient and economical way to provide defendants with something they are entitled to under the law.
This is what used to happen. A judge in Edgartown District Court would set bail. The defendant would either post the required bail and be released or the defendant would petition for a review by a superior court judge.
But there’s a catch. There is only a superior court judge on Island for two months out of the year, so in order to make the hearing happen in a timely manner, two sheriff’s deputies would have to bring the defendant on the ferry, and then drive the 50-plus minutes from Woods Hole to Barnstable County Superior Court to go before a judge. So, a hearing that would typically last about 10 to 15 minutes would instead result in a daylong trip, the expense of ferries and gas, as well as covering for the two sheriff’s department employees taken away from their tasks at the jail.
None of that is in the spirit of the law regarding bail.
Something the general public often confuses is the intent of bail. The purpose of bail is to ensure a defendant returns to court for his or her next appearance. It is not meant to be a punishment. A 2017 Supreme Judicial Court ruling known as Brangan v. Commonwealth requires judges to consider a defendant’s financial resources in setting bail. Because of that ruling, bail hearings are even more prevalent, as defense attorneys raise the issue of a judge not taking a defendant’s ability to pay into account as a basis for hearings.
According to Ogden, those off-Island trips to Barnstable cost between $750 and $800 per trip. The video equipment was a one-time cost of $6,500. So once the jail has held eight or nine review hearings via video, the system will have been paid for itself.
The savings isn’t going to pay for the new communications equipment the sheriff’s department so desperately needs, but it is a cost savings to Island taxpayers.
It also is a safety measure. Any time a defendant is transported, there is a risk. Edgartown’s courthouse doesn’t even have a lockup, and the cell at the Barnstable courthouse is inadequate because district court defendants seeking bail review wind up in the same cell with people facing superior court charges. Not a good situation.
This new service protects a defendant’s right to a bail review, while saving money and protecting the public. We’re not particularly fond of the overused expression “no brainer,” but in this instance it seems to apply.
And we’re still left wondering why, since Barnstable has been doing this since 2012, nobody thought of it sooner. Better late than never.