On the average day, about two-thirds of the people held in Maine’s county jails are awaiting a court appearance. These pre-trial inmates have not been found guilty of a crime. Instead, many are being held in jail because they are too poor to afford bail or fines. The slow pace of court cases worsens the problem.

Keeping these people out of jail would save money and allow jail administrators to focus on the needs of long-term inmates, which include mental health and substance abuse treatment.

A bill being considered by legislators aims to begin to reverse this trend by making law enforcement agencies reconsider their decisions to take the homeless and other low-level offenders to jail rather than giving them a summons to appear in court.

LD 516, sponsored by Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the former sheriff of Cumberland County, would assess a $50 fee on the arresting department for inmates who are charged with public drinking, trespassing or other nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. The arresting agency must reimburse the jail for housing these people.

“Individuals with mental illness or an addiction cycle are repeatedly incarcerated for minor violations,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in support of the bill. “We need to ask ourselves is this the best use of our justice system, limited resources and financial resources?”

The bill is well intentioned, but the true conflict is not between county jails and municipal law enforcement. It is between the jails and an overburdened court system and state lawmakers who have failed to adequately fund county jails.

In Penobscot County, on an average day, 69 percent of the jail’s inmates last year were awaiting a court date. These inmates have not been found guilty of a crime that would require them to be held in a jail.

Not all of these inmates should be free pending a trial. Three of the five longest-held, pre-trial inmates at the Penobscot County jail are charged with murder. But several inmates at the jail in Bangor have been incarcerated for nearly a year while awaiting court dates on charges of drug trafficking and possession, reckless conduct and stalking.

On a recent day, the jail held 187 inmates. Forty-seven inmates were being held on probation violations, 23 of which were classified as technical violations, meaning no new crime had occurred. Instead, the inmates had violated curfew or been drinking or otherwise violating the conditions of their parole. Twenty-two of those who had violated parole had no bail requirements, yet they waited months for a hearing, Sheriff Troy Morton told the BDN in an interview Monday.

The jail, like others around the state, participates in several programs that divert some inmates awaiting trial from jail. Even with these programs, the percentage of pre-trial inmates in the county jail increases each year.

Lawmakers have proposed alternatives, but few changes have been made. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, for example, two years ago proposed requiring judges to use risk assessment tools to determine whether a defendant posed a risk of flight or harm to others rather than imposing bail. If the risk was low, the defendant would not be required to be held in jail pending a court appearance. This approach, supported by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, makes more sense than crowding jails with low-level offenders simply waiting for their day in court.

If lawmakers are serious about reducing county jail overcrowding, reducing the pre-trial backlog must be part of the solution.