April 22, 2018
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Deferred disposition: a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to justice

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — One July night this summer in the small town of Waldo, a man was drinking and tried to ride off on his motorcycle when his family tried to stop him, according to police and prosecutors.

He drove off in another vehicle anyway, then returned to his home and made some threatening remarks to his wife, according to Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker. Exactly what he said is disputed. At first, his wife told responding police officers that her husband told her if he’d had a gun, he would kill her and then shoot himself. Then she immediately corrected herself, saying that the man had only threatened to kill himself.

“If I go to trial with this, I don’t know which version she’d say,” Walker said. “There are a lot of unknowns here.”

Nevertheless, the Waldo man’s actions and comments that night set off a chain of events that has not yet been resolved. The case has given Walker a good opportunity to talk about an often used but little understood prosecutorial tool, deferred disposition. Maine courts first began to allow its use six years ago.

“We were very skeptical of it,” Walker said of the type of prosecution available to eligible defendants. “We thought it wouldn’t work. But six years later, I think it has a place and a role … Deferred disposition is a gulf between being able to resolve cases and not resolve cases. I think it helps victims and offenders get the help they need. I think it’s been a really successful program.”

It’s not for everyone, he said, including violent offenders. But in the case of the Waldo man, in exchange for his guilty plea to a charge of domestic violence terrorizing, the judge will continue the case for a year. During that year, he must comply with special probation conditions that include receiving counseling for alcohol abuse and psychological issues. He also will be prohibited from using or possessing alcohol or illegal drugs.

If he meets these conditions to the satisfaction of the judge, the charge will be reduced to disorderly conduct, and he will pay a $300 fine and nothing more. But if he doesn’t, he will have a domestic violence conviction on his record, which has serious implications. He could be sentenced to spend as much as 364 days in jail, pay a fine of up to $2,000, be placed on probation for up to two years and be prohibited from owning or possessing firearms ever again. He’s an avid hunter, and that is an outcome he wants to avoid, Walker said.

“The judge made it very clear to him he doesn’t just go back to business as usual,” Walker said. “I am very optimistic that he’ll do well in the next year.”

The prosecutor described deferred disposition as a tool that gives the state the ability to take a “carrot and stick” approach to justice, and give offenders more incentives to stay on the right track.

“Our job obviously is to make sure justice is done. To make sure offenders are properly punished, and also attempt to rehabilitate them,” he said. “The harder part comes when you’re in the middle, trying to accomplish meaningful goals and change conduct, to prevent future crimes and prevent people from being victimized.”

While deferred disposition can have good results, it doesn’t work for every offender, Walker said.

“Some of them are great successes, and some of them fail,” he said. “They’ve dug themselves into a deep hole. And you’re offering a rope to pull themselves out.”

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