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Kennebec County officials on Thursday outlined three initiatives aimed at reducing the number of people sitting in its local jail.
The separate initiatives, some of which have been in effect for a few months, are aimed at taking a more rehabilitative approach toward offenders as a way to reduce recidivism, and are overseen by the courts, prosecutors, corrections officials and law enforcement.
“The overall goal is [to create] a criminal justice system that treats people fairly, and we’re working together to try to come up with programs to meet that goal,” Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said at a news conference Thursday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.
A new mental health court
A specialty docket now exists to closely manage cases involving defendants who are acutely mentally ill, who could otherwise languish in jail as their complex cases move slowly through the court system or who are prone to re-offending because they are not receiving proper care.
Superior Justice Michaela Murphy has overseen the new mental health docket since the beginning of the year. The court identifies defendants with acute mental illness and puts them on an expedited track to coordinate their care, both while they’re in custody and after they are released.
Once a month, a group of state employees, including representatives from Riverview Psychiatric Center and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, meet to discuss the cases, making sure defendants who are in greatest need of a bed at one of the state’s chronically full psychiatric hospitals get one, she said.
The court also tries to plan for their release, such as by coordinating their needs for travel, housing or other social services. Were they to go through the usual criminal process, they may leave jail no better off than when they arrived or end up waiting months for a psychiatric hospital bed.
“It isn’t right that just because they have a mental illness that they’ve lost their liberty for a longer amount of time,” Murphy said.
The Kennebec County jail has started a new medication-assisted treatment program for sentenced inmates diagnosed with opioid use disorder. It provides them with medication to reduce their withdrawals and cravings while in jail and then connects them with a sober living residence upon their release.
The grant-funded program will allow up to 16 sentenced inmates to treat their opioid addiction with Suboxone, which is the standard of care for treating the disease but isn’t commonly allowed inside Maine correctional facilities. It is run by the organization Enso Recovery, which operates a similar program at the York County Jail, and aims to get offenders into recovery so they don’t reoffend.
Eligible participants are required to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. In addition to receiving Suboxone, they attend counseling sessions in a pod that has been designated for their program.
Upon release, they serve the remainder of the program on probation while residing in a sober home in Augusta. Their jail sentence and probation add up to one year. If they violate the terms of their probation, they could return to jail.
There are six people currently in the program, said Steve Danzig, executive director of Enso Recovery.
A new way to make decisions about bail
Now, the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office will make bail recommendations for newly arrested criminal defendants based on the outcome of a tool that predicts how likely they are to commit a new offense before their case has ended. The tool consists of a questionnaire that produces a numerical score of the person’s risk level.
Going forward, prosecutors won’t recommend setting cash amounts for defendants who have received a low- or medium-risk score on a risk assessment performed before their bail hearing. Low-risk defendants will be released before their trial, and medium-risk defendants will be required to live in the community under supervision, meaning they’ll have to check in daily with a partner agency, Maine Pretrial Services, abide by a curfew and meet other conditions.
Maine Pretrial Services was already assessing defendants for risk and supervising some of them in Kennebec County, but the district attorney’s office wasn’t relying on the results to formally determine their bail recommendations.
Maloney said her office became comfortable with the idea of depending on the assessment tool after the questionnaire was tested last year against 9,000 Maine cases to ensure it is an effective predictor of risk and that it doesn’t discriminate against gender or race, she said.
It will allow more people to “wait for their trial while working, with their families,” Maloney said. “And then if they’re found guilty, that’s the appropriate time to serve your jail sentence.”
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