Police found the red pickup truck more than 100 miles from where it had been reported stolen. It was sitting on the frozen surface of Millinocket Lake in northern Penobscot County, 100 feet from the shoreline, its tank out of gas, a state trooper wrote in his police report. Inside the cab, 26-year-old Ashley Garboski was curled into a fetal position in the driver’s seat, asleep.
Her father, Frank Garboski, had been worried about his daughter, who lived with him and his wife in Belgrade. In the days before the truck went missing, on Feb. 24, Ashley had behaved oddly, he said, making “off-the-wall” remarks. Once, she pointed at the sky and asked her father what it meant, he said.
An officer brought Ashley to the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor on Feb. 25 and booked her on charges of theft and driving on a suspended license. A judge released her two days later on the condition that she stay at her parents’ house and check in daily with a caseworker at Maine Pretrial Services, which supervises defendants who aren’t dangerous, so they don’t have to sit in jail while their case awaits trial.
But a week later, police arrested Ashley again for not following her bail conditions, which had confused her, she later said. This time, the court set her bail at $500 cash, which she doesn’t have.
More than two months later, she is still in jail.
Between 1995 and 2005, the average daily population in Maine jails nearly doubled. That growth was driven not by a sharp increase in people serving sentences for crimes but an increase in the number of prisoners like Ashley who were being held prior to their conviction. Since 2005, the average daily population rose as high as 1,800 inmates statewide in 2014 and has hovered around 1,660 for the last two years. The percentage of prisoners held before their conviction has continued to rise.
In 1993, only 40 percent of inmates in Maine jails were being detained before their conviction. Because a judge hasn’t ruled on their cases, they are referred to as “pretrial” inmates. Now, between 60 and 80 percent of inmates are pretrial, depending on the county.
The trend represents a transformation in the role of county jails. Today, they aren’t just locking up people who are dangerous. They are also holding many people accused of minor crimes and violations before they’ve had their day in court.
Detaining low-level and non-violent offenders, even for just a few days, has dubious public safety benefits and punishing human and financial costs, according to numerous studies. An unplanned trip to jail can imperil a person’s employment, health, housing and ability to provide childcare, according to interviews with formerly incarcerated defendants and a summary of research examining the effects of pretrial detention.
It can also separate people from their families, jeopardize their public benefits and pressure defendants to plead guilty as a faster way to resolve their case, two studies found by examining how pretrial detention affects convictions and sentencing.
That fallout isn’t always in exchange for making communities safer, according to research showing that just a few days behind bars can make people more likely to re-offend.
“‘Legal’ and ‘just’ are two different things. This is not just,” said Tina Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “We’re dealing with human beings here, and we need to be more thoughtful.”
Yet minor cases constitute the bulk of defendants coming and going from Maine jails, creating a constant turnover of defendants who can’t immediately post bail. That turnover feeds into a more static population of defendants who are sitting in jail for longer, usually because their charges are more severe or because, like Ashley, they allegedly failed to comply with their bail conditions. About 70 percent of those inmates are dealing with either a mental illness, substance use disorder or both.
These trends suggest that detention can be as much a sign of poverty, or other forms of distress, as potential wrongdoing. It’s why multiple studies have called a national spike in rural pretrial detention another symptom of the economic misfortune and public health crises plaguing communities in rural America.
Ashley had struggled with her mental and emotional health ever since she left an abusive relationship in high school, according to her father. She had trouble staying focused enough to hold down jobs and could lash out at her parents when they tried to get her to open up to them, Frank said. Twice in the past, police had brought Ashley to the hospital to undergo psychiatric care because she grew upset and combative, and indicated that she might hurt herself or others, her father said.
“There are just some things going on here that we don’t know how to deal with,” said Frank, a property manager and handyman. Though she lives with her parents, she has always been independent, he said, going for long drives that have put upwards of 40,000 miles on her dad’s car over the course of a year.
In the weeks before she was arrested, Frank noticed that something was troubling his oldest daughter. Her words became hard to follow, he said, and she started making obscure hand motions, like raising her pinkie finger at her dad as if the gesture had meaning. In response to questions from the Bangor Daily News that Ashley wrote from her jail cell, she said that “something came over [her] after seeing the blue moon around Valentines day and howling at it.”
Then a red truck went missing from a local restaurant, and police arrested Ashley.
It’s estimated that about 40,000 Maine people a year are in custody at some point before their case is over, according to a forthcoming report on pretrial detention from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The number isn’t formally tracked by the state, as is the case with many other statistics.
The organization found that the top five categories of alleged crimes were all fairly minor, after it compiled booking data for seven counties in 2017. The largest category of offense, which constituted 51 percent of offenses, were to public order and administration. One of the leading offenses was missing a court date.
The remaining bookings were for major driving offenses (21 percent), assaults (12 percent), thefts (9 percent) and drugs (8 percent). Some people were in jail because they owed debts, the organization found, noting that Maine courts issued more than 25,000 arrest warrants for people in 2015 because they hadn’t paid fines.
The trends mirrored what a study of five Maine county jails, prepared by the judiciary branch for a state task force in 2015, found in a review of booking data during the month of April that year. The top five criminal charges were all misdemeanors, although the second most common was for domestic violence assault.
Most people are released in fewer than two days, the study found, seeming to reflect the minor nature of most charges or that most defendants didn’t pose the kind of danger that warranted locking them away before a conviction. That was initially the case for Ashley, who was released two days following her arrest on Millinocket Lake. Though she was facing a more serious Class C felony theft charge, defendants aren’t supposed to he held before they’ve been convicted unless they are dangerous or a flight risk, according to state law.
What sent her back to jail was a bail violation, the most common charge found among offenders in the 2015 study. Her bail conditions instructed her to live with her parents and call Maine Pretrial Services daily, but, instead, she went to the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and neglected to check in, her caseworker said.