In some Maine jails, more than three-quarters of inmates haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re awaiting trial, and many can’t post the required bail that would allow them to remain free. Others are in jail for not paying fines. Put together, this is a perversion of our justice system and a waste of limited county resources.
Instead of perpetuating a system that isn’t working, a group of jail administrators, law enforcement, lawmakers and social service advocates is suggesting big changes in the state’s pre-trial system. In a report released last month, they suggested giving judges discretion to waive fines when defendants prove they cannot afford them. Courts should only issue arrest warrants for unpaid fines of $100 or more, not the current $25, their report said. The state should develop a coordinated public service program as an alternative for those who can’t afford the fines that keep them in jail.
The task force, created by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, recommended further studying the use of a risk assessment system instead of bail to more accurately determine who is truly at risk of not showing up in court. And although they tossed the final decision to the Legislature, the committee suggested a review of the nearly 1,100 state statutes that require mandatory minimum sentences.
A bill before the Legislature this winter offers a vehicle to implement many of these changes.
LD 951, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, would give judges discretion in administering fines. Currently, judges must assess fines as they are delineated in state statute.
“An individual does not need to be arrested and incarcerated solely because they have had a life-changing experience that has affected their income or because they are indigent without a comprehensive discussion with a judge,” Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster told members of the Judiciary Committee while testifying in favor of the bill last year. Doing so also unnecessarily costs taxpayers money — jail costs about $100 per day — and leads to jail overcrowding. Lawmakers held over the bill, and they’ll consider it again this year. They should broaden it to include other commendations from the task force.
Portland attorney David Soley, founder of the Maine Homeless Legal Project, testified that Maine is violating the 14th Amendment by incarcerating people simply because they are poor. While in jail, someone might lose his or her job, making it even more difficult to pay a fine.
Lawmakers in Kentucky heard similar concerns before they revised the state’s pretrial procedures beginning in 2011. Instead of bail hearings, judges use a risk assessment tool to determine who is most at risk for skipping their court dates. The assessment is based on data collected from past defendants and their behavior. High-risk defendants may be held in jail. Those at moderate risk could be monitored by GPS devices or pretrial service providers, and judges can impose other conditions, such as drug testing. Low-risk defendants sign personal recognizance documents and can then remain in the community, where they can continue to work and care for family members.
The nonprofit Maine Pretrial Services offers this type of assessment and monitoring for people it works with, but its services aren’t available to all defendants. It currently operates in 10 of Maine’s counties, though it hopes to expand statewide.
Last year, lawmakers rejected a bill to do away with Maine’s cash bail system and replace it with a risk assessment. They should revive the idea as part of an amended LD 951.
Maine’s county jails are overcrowded. Poor people accused of low-level crimes are held simply because they don’t have enough money to post bail or pay fines. Sheriffs, judges and civil rights advocates agree this is morally wrong, doesn’t improve public safety and wastes taxpayer money. The consensus clearly points to the need for a new, smarter system.