Antiquated Doesn’t Mean Ineffective in the Legal Realm
The recent release of a Boston Globe Spotlight report prompted Gov. Charles Baker and top state lawmakers to make a broad call for additional transparency within Massachusetts’ closed-door magistrate system that handles show-cause hearings — a process where a magistrate court makes a preliminary determination on whether a case should move forward. While transparency is important for holding our elected officials accountable, allowing show-cause hearings to be made public — or even releasing the names of individuals called into a review — would be detrimental to the criminal justice system.
Show-cause hearings are designed to divert low-level cases out of the overburdened criminal justice system. Procedurally, the hearing is usually requested by a police officer and asks the magistrate court to review gathered evidence and issue a criminal complaint. It also provides the opportunity for an accused person, or his or her attorney, to argue the facts of an incident before an arrest is made.
These sorts of hearings take place in a more informal, closeted setting and, importantly, are not reported on any criminal record. The confidentiality of show-cause hearings allows the identity of the accused to remain secret. This aspect is necessary because not every show-cause hearing results in an arrest.
In cases where a show-cause hearing does not result in an arrest, the closed-door nature of the hearing ensures that accused persons do not suffer the kind of sullied reputation that would otherwise be tied to an actual arrest — or a publicly-released document noting the goings-on of show-cause hearings. If the governor imposes additional transparency on these hearings, Massachusetts would certainly see an uptick in privacy violations.
Although Gov. Baker and others have only suggested increased transparency as a “fix,” those intent on reform should keep in mind the benefits of the system before proposing any changes. Not only does the existing show-cause system limit the accused’s involvement with the criminal justice system, it preserves valuable state resources and can provide an important check on police and prosecutors — a check that additional transparency alone cannot yield.
The opportunity to present exculpatory evidence early on is critical to mitigating the amount of time and money needed to address a potential criminal charge. For example, national studies have estimated the cost of pre-trial involvement with the justice system to be billions of dollars. This outrageous amount of money includes costs almost solely associated with pretrial detention. Shockingly, it does not include money lost from days of missed work or any the costs of hiring a defense attorney.
Moreover, show-cause hearings can be beneficial to prosecutors and local police officers. For the prosecution, show-cause hearings can improve case scheduling and management by streamlining those cases that must face trial. A court docket filled with only cases that meet a high preliminary standard can reduce burdens on the court system. Furthermore, determining which cases do not reach a threshold for prosecution can limit the number of ineffective hearings. As for the police, show-cause hearings can help offer immediate feedback on performance, which will likely result in more thorough investigations and might ultimately limit frivolous arrests.
The closed-door show-cause system increases the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial process. While there is always room for improvement, increasing transparency is not the best way for the Massachusetts magistrate court model.