IN THE WEE HOURS of their final legislative session earlier this month, the state Senate took up a proposal from Gov. Charlie Baker to expand the list of charges under which a defendant could be deemed dangerous and held without bail before trial. Progressive advocates were hoping the Senate, where Democrats dominate by a lopsided 37-3 margin, would soundly reject the measure, as the House had done less than 48 hours earlier. But after voting down Baker’s bill, the Senate took up a pared-back version of the legislation put forward by Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Republican minority leader from Gloucester. 

Chief among the arguments of senators opposed to the measure was that expanding the dangerousness hearing statute would only exacerbate racial disparities in a criminal justice system where Black and Hispanic residents are overrepresented. 

When Sen. Lydia Edwards, an East Boston Democrat and attorney who previously worked in legal services, rose to speak, she addressed that fact in starkly personal terms. 

“Having practiced in it, having defended individuals, having been confused for defendants when I’ve walked into court, I’m not confused by the fact that racism is alive and well in our judicial system,” said Edwards, the lone Black woman in the 40-member Senate. She then proceeded to explain why she would nonetheless be voting in favor of the measure. “I’m also not confused that for many of the victims of racism,” she said, “a lot of them don’t feel that our judicial system values them when they are harmed.”  

The measure wound up passing comfortably, 30-8. But it was a particularly tough blow to progressives to have a Black senator who has championed tenant protections, workers’ rights, and other liberal causes join with more moderate and conservative lawmakers on the issue. Edwards brushes off the criticism that ensued. “I know that didn’t make me very popular with some of the reformers, but I’m sorry – that was reasonable,” she said of Tarr’s amendment.  

Edwards said groups like the ACLU opposed the measure, but their “function and mission has nothing to do with victims,” she said. “They’re focused on the rights of the person who’s holding the gun and not the person facing the gun. That’s their job. My job is to hear both sides.” 

Edwards said progressive advocates failed to consider the significant differences between what Baker proposed and what the Senate adopted following lots of back and forth among members. “They bought the bullshit that I voted for mass incarceration,” she said. “I cannot control that. I can only vote for what I think makes sense.” 

Sen. Lydia Edwards during debate on the dangerousness hearing statute in the Senate.

Edwards cut her teeth politically at the Brazilian Immigrant Workers Center in Allston, where she led the fight for state legislation providing protections for domestic workers. She continued to advocate for low-wage workers, tenants, and issues like equity in minority contracting after winning a seat on the Boston City Council in 2017 representing East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown. In January, she won a special election for state Senate in a district that includes Revere, Winthrop, and chunks of Boston and Cambridge.

Edwards, 41, describes herself as “a leftist,” but says that doesn’t mean she’ll take the progressive tack on every issue. “It’s a purple district,” she says of the communities she represents. “That means progressive purity be damned.” 

Sen. Will Brownsberger said Edwards has brought a grounded approach with her to the Legislature. “I think Lydia brings a very down-to-earth perspective to every issue, and that’s valuable in a time when too often things get discussed on an ideological level,” said Brownsberger. She “thinks in very human terms about how things are going to work from multiple perspectives, and that’s very needed when one’s talking about controversial issues like the criminal justice system.” 

Baker had pushed for months to have lawmakers consider his proposal to expand the criminal charges for which prosecutors could petition a judge to hold a defendant without bail. He held roundtable forums with crime victims who offered moving testimony on behalf of his bill. But the Legislature’s judiciary committee voted in July to send the bill to a study, effectively killing it for the session. 

When Baker signed the state budget, however, he seized on an opportunity to resurrect the legislation. He sent back to the Legislature a section of the budget that would remove costs to inmates and their families for prison phone calls and tacked onto it an amendment with a new version of his dangerousness hearing measure. 

The House overwhelmingly rejected his amendment. But when the Senate took it up after midnight on August 1 – already blowing past the July 31 deadline for ending formal sessions for the year – the measure suddenly came to life. After extensive negotiations with a number of senators, including Edwards, Tarr introduced a significantly pared-down version of the bill that won broad support. His amendment stripped most of the charges in Baker’s bill, including burglary and arson and a catch-call provision covering crimes with a maximum sentence of 10 years or more. 

“I try to find common ground on issues that are important, and it was clear to me there was common ground to be found,” Tarr said in an interview. 

Edwards pushed successfully, for example, for removal from the bill of assault and battery on a police officer, arguing that the charge is too widely applied. But she said in her floor speech that the charges that remained, many of which involve “horrible, horrendous, disgusting acts upon children,” were cases where it was reasonable to allow prosecutors to ask a judge to hold a defendant. “It’s hard to vote against that,” she said. 

“Child molesters are dangerous,” Edwards said in an interview, adding that such charges don’t have the ambiguity that can come with other cases where a defendant may make a claim of self-defense. She also supported the inclusion of “criminal harassment,” saying a defendant could pose a serious threat even if facing charges “that don’t necessarily involve physical acts.”

Edwards highlighted a provision of the bill requiring authorities to make every effort to notify victims at least six hours before someone charged with a crime eligible for a dangerousness hearing is being released from custody. 

“It’s speaking to me and to my lived experience,” she said on the Senate floor, explaining that she once sought a protective order against someone who threatened her life because of her legal work defending immigrants. “I would feel like a hypocrite to vote against something like that.” 

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and one of eight liberal senators to vote against Tarr’s amendment, said he had not expected the issue to play out as it did. He slammed Baker for tying the prison phone call measure to the dangerousness hearing issue, calling it “manipulative” politics. “I knew that some of my more conservative colleagues were going to vote for it,” he said of the dangerousness hearing measure. “I was surprised” by the broader support it gained, he said, adding, “I do think there was a bit of factoring in how this vote would look in an election year.” 

Jonathan Cohn, policy director of the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts, which endorsed Edwards in her Senate race and has backed several other senators who supported the measure, said anecdotes about their own experiences or those of constituents seemed to trump consideration by senators of the proposed changes from a broader policy perspective. “I found the votes of a number of legislators very disappointing,” he said.  

It wasn’t only civil liberties groups that opposed the measure. The advocacy group Jane Doe Inc., a coalition working against sexual assault and domestic violence, objected to Baker’s original proposal as overly broad. The group supported adding indecent assault and battery on child to the dangerousness hearing statute, but Hema Sarang-Sieminski, Jane Doe’s policy director, said the organization continues to have questions about both the late-night process and substance of the narrower bill approved by the Senate. 

For now, both the expansion of dangerousness hearings and the no-cost prison phone call measure are in limbo and may not resurface until the new legislative session next year. For anything to happen this year, the House would have to take up the Senate measure that joined the two issues together. Because the Legislature is only scheduled to hold “informal” sessions for the balance of the year, the objection of a single member can halt movement on any issue. 

The dangerousness hearing issue isn’t the only one where Edwards is making some waves that have progressives discomfited. In the Suffolk district attorney’s race, she has endorsed current DA Kevin Hayden, the more moderate Democrat in a primary match-up against Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, the candidate of criminal justice reform activists and bold-name progressive pols from Elizabeth Warren to Michelle Wu.

Edwards said she didn’t know Hayden before his appointment by Gov. Charlie Baker in January to fill the vacant post. But she’s been impressed by her interactions with him and said Arroyo has far less legal experience and no background in a prosecutor’s office. 

“Kevin was responding, Kevin was producing, and Kevin was listening,” she said, citing his willingness to look into possible criminal charges against the owner of a Revere apartment building that was the scene of a recent fire. “Why would I do anything but try to help him, a Black man at that, keep his job,” she said. 

“Lydia is someone who will introduce and fight for very strong policies, but her endorsed candidates don’t always match those policies,” said Cohn, the policy director at Progressive Massachusetts, which has endorsed Arroyo.

Recent Boston Globe reports have raised questions about Hayden’s handling of a case involving two Transit Police officers, one of whom has been alleged to have written up a false report and another of whom is said to have provided false statements backing his fellow officer. The Globe reported that Hayden’s top assistant told a lawyer for one of the officers that the office would not pursue any charges against him, but Hayden says that’s incorrect and that the case remains open. 

Edwards said she spoke with Hayden to hear from him directly. “He said the investigation is ongoing, and I took him at his word,” she said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

Now, Arroyo is facing serious questions with the Globe reporting that he was the subject of two police investigations of alleged sexual assaults, in 2005 and 2007. Neither resulted in charges, and Arroyo insists he was never even told about the cases, though the paper said police records show he spoke with a detective about the 2005 case and said he planned to hire a lawyer.

Edwards said she’s independent minded, but doesn’t end up disagreeing with progressives on that many issues. When she does, “usually they go, ‘I bet she has a reason,’” she said of her left-leaning supporters. “That’s what I’m hoping they see in me.”