February 28, 2020
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The dangers of keeping parents behind bars when it’s unnecessary

Rich Beauchesne | York County Coast Star
Rich Beauchesne | York County Coast Star
Kerry Simes, an inmate at the York County Jail in Alfred, runs a container of prision uniforms through a hallway to the laundry area as part of her job.

Among New England states, Maine has a dubious distinction: It has the highest percentage of children with a parent in jail. These children are more likely to struggle in school and to go without food and medical care.

In Maine, 8 percent of children have had a parent in jail or prison, according to a report by Kids Count. That’s slightly above the national average of 7 percent but well above other New England states, which average 5 percent. In 2011, Maine had the lowest adult incarceration rate, per capita, in the United States. Fathers are more likely to be imprisoned than mothers, but the numbers of mothers in jail or prison doubled from 1991 to 2007. Children living in poverty and children of color are more likely to have an incarcerated parent.

“Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce,” the report says.

The report highlights the need to help these parents reintegrate with their families, employers and communities when they are released from jail. This is important work, but keeping many of these parents out of jail in the first place should be a higher priority. Policymakers must examine why so many people, including parents, are being incarcerated and whether these sentences are necessary.

Many adults in Maine and around the country are being held for a failure to post bail or pay fines, a Catch-22 situation that leaves low-level offenders stuck in jail, often without appearing before a judge, where they can’t earn the money necessary to pay their fines or bail.

Maine has made progress. Earlier this month, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law several recommendations from a task force on reforming the state’s bail and fine systems. The new law allows judges to waive fines, especially if they would impose financial hardship.

The number of inmates held at many of the state’s county jails doubled between 2009 and 2012, according to the most recent assessment from the University of Maine Muskie School of Public Service’s Crime and Justice Databook. In some jails, those awaiting trial account for two-thirds or more of their total inmate population. Many remain in jail because they cannot raise money to pay bail, which can be as low as $50. “In some cases, people are imprisoned awaiting trial for a longer period than they would serve if they are in fact found guilty,” Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, told the Judiciary Committee in testimony in support of LD 1639, which became law last month.

Giving judges discretion over fines was one of several things recommended by a group of jail administrators, law enforcement, lawmakers and social service advocates who suggested big changes in the state’s pre-trial system. In a report released late last year, they suggested that courts only issue arrest warrants for unpaid fines of $100 or more, not the current $25. The state should develop a coordinated public service program as an alternative for those who can’t afford to pay 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 it tossed the final decision to the Legislature, the panel suggested a review of the nearly 1,100 state statutes that require mandatory minimum sentences.

The next Legislature should continue this work to ensure that low-income, low-risk defendants aren’t being held in jail, which is costly to taxpayers and can be devastating to their children, when it is not necessary.

 


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