During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, four individuals called for Planning Board member Muriel Kramer to step down due to her volunteer work with the Massachusetts Bail Fund.
According to its website, the Massachusetts Bail Fund — its motto is “Free them all” — posts bail “so that low-income people can stay free while they work toward resolving their case, allowing individuals, families and communities to stay productive, together and stable.”
The fund has been receiving heavy criticism for bailing out some individuals charged with violent crimes, including a convicted sex offender who was charged with a raping a woman weeks after being released.
Kramer, in an interview late Tuesday night, stressed that she completely understands people’s outrage but defended the work being done by the organization and said she has no plans to resign from the Planning Board.
“I understand people are reacting to the harm,” she said. “I had to do a lot of processing, too. It makes sense. I think that everybody needs to be heard in situations like this. These are difficult, complex questions. But it should be very hard to separate somebody, anybody, from their personal liberty. And the law says that’s not what bail is supposed to be for. That’s been settled by case law. If a presumed offender, an accused person, is thought to be dangerous, that’s a different process that the state is supposed to exercise.”
Kramer has been affiliated with the Massachusetts Bail Fund since serving as an intern in 2015-16, while she was getting her social work degree. She’s currently a board member and the organization’s treasurer.
“[Kramer] is the one writing the checks to set these defendants free on bail without any regard for the seriousness of their crimes,” an “irate” individual identified as Bill told the Select Board, adding: “To knowingly aid these criminals is unconscionable. I call on Muriel Kramer to resign from her position on the Planning Board immediately.”
A person named Laura wrote that the fund “has certainly strayed from [its] initial mission of assisting those who could not afford $500 bail to now supporting releasing violent and repeat offenders into our communities. These offenders should not be afforded assistance for a second chance with murder, rape and Level 3 sexual offenses. The more I research, the more upsetting it is to see the lack of responsibility affect the families, victims and neighborhoods.”
An individual identified as Ann said that Kramer’s involvement with the Massachusetts Bail Fund “makes me question her judgment and how she basically makes decisions.”
Kramer said she welcomes the opportunity to talk with anyone who has questions or concerns about her work so she can explain the importance of the fund.
“First I think it’s important to respond to the central fact that somebody was harmed, and that’s what people are reacting to, and rightly so,” she said. “We all react and respond with open hearts and feelings too, anytime someone experiences harm in their community. … I want to receive people’s concerns and confusion and outrage and, in my mind, misunderstanding. They don’t feel that they’re misunderstanding it, and I respect that. But I would really welcome the opportunity to talk to people one-on-one — not to convince anybody one way or the other. But the work, the anti-racist work and to try to level the playing fields in communities that have been traditionally very marginalized and very oppressed is difficult work.
“I would want to say, too — and it doesn’t mean anything when somebody has been harmed — but it is unusual, it’s a statistical anomaly for someone to reoffend when they’re out on bail. Most states and communities that have changed their bail statutes have not found an increase in criminal activity that people worried about.”
Like many similar organizations across the nation, the Massachusetts Bail Fund received a surge in donations this summer as Black Lives Matter protests erupted following the death of George Floyd while he was being restrained by police in Minneapolis. According to Kramer, it has helped expose a systemic problem that the Massachusetts Bail Fund has been working to combat since 2013.
“I think that a lot of people don’t fully understand that bail is not supposed to be a tool for keeping people in jails long term, and it very often is,” she said. “At any time in the U.S. there’s over half a million people in jail on bails, and they’re there because they can’t afford their bails. … People live in states of oppression, and it’s impossible to think and plan and take care of yourself when you have no options.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins was among those who criticized the Massachusetts Bail Fund after a convicted sex offender allegedly committed rape while out on bail. Kramer countered that Rollins can work to keep individuals charged with violent crimes in prison without bail.
“In Massachusetts in particular there is a dangerousness hearing,” Kramer explained. “Part of the false information that’s out there is that DA Rollins doesn’t want to exercise the dangerousness process because victims would be forced to testify, and that’s actually simply not true. They can conduct that process without putting a victim through that process.”
That said, Kramer acknowledged that the fund is taking a close look at how it can avoid a repeat of past issues.
“We can’t ever talk about specific cases, but absolutely we’re looking at policies and procedures and want to make sure we are being thoughtful,” she said.
Massachusetts Bail Fund administrator Michael Cox, in an interview last week with WBUR, took a stronger stance, lashing out at those who are seeking to demonize the organization.
“What we’re seeing here is really a racialized attack, where we see fear-mongering to create a narrative,” Cox said. “These narratives set us back, and this is how we got to 2 million people incarcerated in the first place.”
Kramer said she has been boosted by the support she has received, especially in town.
“I am the beneficiary of an unbelievable outpouring of support. It’s humbling, actually,” she said. “I have tried to be a community contributor for my whole life, certainly the 30 years that I have been here in Hopkinton, and it is coming back to me. People have been really, really wonderful, and it is so appreciated.”
Select Board member Mary Jo LaFreniere is one such supporter, and she spoke on Kramer’s behalf during Tuesday’s meeting.
“She’s done a wonderful, wonderful job for the town,” LaFreniere said. “She’s one of the nicest, kindest individuals that I know. … The whole [criminal justice] system is not fair and the whole system needs revamping from soup to nuts. I can’t say I like it. I don’t. But let’s not kill the messenger. I think we’re hanging somebody who’s done a lot of good things for the town because of her [outside volunteer work].”
In a departure from normal Select Board policy, the speakers and letter writers who criticized Kramer were not identified by full name and address.
Chair Brendan Tedstone said the individuals were afraid that “people that have been released from this Mass. Bail Fund would potentially come back” after them. “So the reason for anonymity seems to be based on the safety of themselves and their family, as well as their work.”
Added Tedstone: “They’re concerned for our town, but they’re concerned for our safety, so I think it shows bravery that they wrote the letter to begin with. And if we don’t allow them anonymity I think that we’d be doing our town somewhat of a disservice by not reading them.”
That did not sit well with all the Select Board members.
“I have a hard time with it,” LaFreniere said. “We make everybody else say who they are.”
Amy Ritterbusch requested that the board establish a clear policy going forward, noting that there was another anonymous letter submitted recently that was not read.
Brian Herr said the letters are public documents and could be obtained by anyone from Town Hall.