AUGUSTA, Maine — Eliminating cash bail would dramatically reduce the number of inmates in Maine jails and dramatically lower taxpayer costs, according to state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.
Brakey said Thursday he intends to introduce legislation that would do away with bail in Maine and replace it with a system that screens those charged with crimes to determine whether they are a flight risk before releasing them.
“It’s coming from both a place where we are concerned about using the resources taxpayers give us efficiently, but we are also concerned about protecting the individual rights of people who are caught in the jail system,” Brakey said. “It’s a convergence of both of those issues.”
Maine’s county jails are again facing a critical funding shortage, but a huge part of those costs, according to Brakey, are generated by inmates who have yet to go to trial and have been unable to post cash bail.
“This is a bill that came out of conversations I’ve had with a constituent who works within the criminal justice system, and it seeks to remedy some problems we are having there, particularly around overcrowding, the use of tax dollars, which is not very efficient and effective, and also concerns about civil liberties of people who are in these jails and have not been convicted of any crime at this point,” Brakey said.
He said the idea comes from programs in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, both of which have done away with bail requirements. Instead, those arrested and charged with crimes are evaluated, based on the crime they are charged with and other factors, on whether they will return for trial or flee.
Brakey said the move would dramatically reduce the cost of operating Maine’s county jails, which are facing a $2.5 million shortfall for the current fiscal year. Brakey noted that about 69 percent of the inmates in Maine jails are those who have yet to go to trial and are unable to post bail.
“Sometimes, their bail amounts are as low as $50, but they can’t come up with the money,” Brakey said.
Taxpayers foot the bill to keep the inmates behind bars for as much as $100 a day, he said, adding that many suspects spend enough time behind bars before they go to trial that, if they are convicted, they have already served their time.
Most of those, he said, are charged with nonviolent crimes.
Others, he said, actually plead guilty — whether or not they are — when they do go to trial because they’ve already served their time.
Brakey said he’s bringing the bill to save the counties and the state money but also because he believes the system, as it is, is unfair.
“Why would we want to spend $100 a day holding people who are not a flight risk and not a danger to others?” Brakey asked. “Particularly when they have not been convicted of any crime.”
Brakey said that under his proposal, a suspect who is deemed a flight risk would be held without bail until trial. Otherwise, “you simply let them go until trial.”
He said he didn’t yet know how much it might cost to implement the system, but it would end up costing less in the long run because counties would end up housing fewer inmates.
State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff and a former chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said Thursday that Brakey’s proposal is admirable but Dion wasn’t sure it was the ideal solution to the problem of overcrowded jails.
Many of those unable to make bail are struggling with addiction or underlying mental health issues, Dion said.
“I mean, these days it does seem that all roads lead back to the jail,” he said.
He suggested one way to reduce inmate numbers is to consider arresting fewer people in the first place.
“Another way to approach this is to have a discussion around under what circumstances do people get arrested as opposed to just simply receiving a summons,” Dion said.
He said that conversation also could result in a way to save law enforcement time, and in some cases, especially in rural parts of the state, to allow an officer to remain in the community doing enforcement work, as opposed to transporting low-profile suspects to jail.
Dion said holding pretrial inmates is definitely expensive and driving up jail costs. Dion said he recently checked on the daily inmate costs and learned the average cost of keeping an inmate behind bars was $112 a day.
He said recent changes in domestic violence laws require a judge to be the only one to set bail for domestic violence suspects. Those changes and others have affected the length of pretrial stays for some suspects.
Dion said those changes were made largely in the interest of protecting victims and public safety, but they are factors in why jails are seeing increasing numbers and increasing costs.
Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said he would want to see more details on Brakey’s proposal before taking a position on the bill.
Samson said 82 percent of the inmates in his jail had yet to go to trial.
He said his first concern around any changes to the way Maine handles bail is whether it would diminish public safety.