AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley on Tuesday announced a new effort to keep more people who are awaiting trial out of the state’s county jails.
More than 60 percent of people held in Maine’s jails have not been convicted, she said, and many don’t pose a risk for flight or violent behavior. Some failed to appear in court to pay fines, she said, while others don’t have the money to post bail or are waiting for a bed in a treatment facility.
“Defendants who present a risk of flight or violence need the attention and resources of the jails,” Saufley said during her annual State of the Judiciary address. “But many others could be better addressed with the focused attention of less costly resources.”
Maine already uses risk assessment techniques with perpetrators of domestic violence to determine whether they are a continued threat. Saufley said expanded use of risk assessment could help keep people who don’t need to be in jails out of them.
“The national research demonstrates the long-term benefits of risk assessments and better attention to suitability for pretrial release,” she said. “Objective risk assessments provide an additional means for ensuring that neither a person’s poverty nor a person’s ethnicity leads to unnecessary pretrial incarceration.”
She also said initial research suggests pretrial jailing of “low-risk” offenders creates a higher likelihood of recidivism.
Saufley said a new Task Force on Pretrial Justice Reform would study the issue, with the goal of reducing the “financial and human costs” of unnecessary incarceration without compromising justice or the public’s safety.
Justice Robert Mullen will lead the group, which will include members appointed by the Maine Legislature and by Gov. Paul LePage.
In her speech, Saufley touted recent improvements and consolidations in Maine’ courts, including the new Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, which will replace three court buildings when it opens on May 1.
In 12 years, the number of state court buildings has dropped from 47 to 39, “without sacrificing access to justice in our rural regions,” Saufley said.
Saufley asked lawmakers to support LePage’s proposed Judiciary budget, which includes more judges, district attorneys, assistant attorneys general and Maine Drug Enforcement agents.
Lawmakers are considering several bills that dovetail with the goals outlined in Saufley’s speech, including several bills to increase juror compensation, and a bill aimed at reforming Maine’s bail system.
Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that Saufley has reached out to the committee to help implement her vision for Maine’s courts.
“We have a proactive chief justice who reaches out and builds relationships,” he said. “It’s a proactive approach that she’s instituted, that has really brought the court system far ahead of where we were 10 years ago.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.