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Nearly seven years ago, on July 13, 2012, then-Rep. Ken Fredette, a Republican from Newport, stood behind a podium at the State House and held up a black gadget the size of a cell phone that had a circular strap. It was an electronic monitoring device that would alert authorities if alleged domestic violence offenders went to places where they were forbidden, such as their alleged victim’s home or workplace.
Fredette was there to impress the need for more electronic monitoring devices. He also presented a check to then-Gov. Paul LePage for $18,000, which came from the private proceeds of a 5K held in memory of kindergarten teacher Amy Bagley Lake and her two children, who were killed by her estranged husband when he was out on bail in 2011 in Dexter — in Fredette’s district. It was one of Maine’s most notorious domestic violence homicides.
LePage announced that he would match the $18,000 with money from his contingency fund, setting aside a total of $36,000 to fund both exploring how to expand the use of electronic monitoring in domestic violence cases and implementing the new systems. Fredette, whose previous bill to implement electronic monitoring had failed, said it would remain his focus in the future.
“If I’m re-elected for the next session, this will be my top priority bill to bring in the Legislature,” he said.
But despite having the support of sheriffs, district attorneys, domestic violence advocates, the former governor and Fredette, who went on to become minority leader of the Maine House, electronic monitoring never spread statewide. It remains an underutilized tool in cases involving defendants who might act violently but don’t need to remain in jail pending a trial, and could be part of a solution to lowering the number of people held in Maine’s jails who haven’t been convicted, said officials who work with the criminal justice system.
“It’s tragic that things that seem like they would make a big difference in people’s safety are not easily moved forward,” said Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “I thought surely under the LePage administration this would be easy given all his emphasis on domestic violence.”
Instead, individual counties have taken it upon themselves to develop electronic monitoring programs, scattering the effort and creating different approaches across the state. In addition, Maine’s jail population has remained stubbornly high, not because of an increase in sentenced prisoners but because of an increase in those unable to bail out before their trial.
According to the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse, seven out of 16 counties used electronic monitoring in a total of 59 domestic violence cases in 2016, which appears to be the last available statewide tally. The counties contract with different private companies to provide the technology, and different entities oversee the day-to-day operations; some counties have the sheriff’s office do it, and others rely on a private nonprofit, Maine Pretrial Services.
Various counties use electronic monitoring for different purposes. Some only put ankle bracelets on alleged offenders awaiting the resolution of their domestic violence cases, while others will put them on people charged with other crimes. Some use them occasionally for people serving sentences under house arrest or those on probation.
Without a statewide system and full funding, the programs are small and largely depend on a few key people to organize efforts and even be available around the clock to coordinate responses if alleged offenders go where they aren’t supposed to. “While admirable,” stated a 2017 report to the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse, requiring a couple designated people to be available at all times is not “a sustainable model.”
Cumberland County’s electronic monitoring program, which is considered among the state’s most developed, depends on coordination between at least seven entities. It took a year for Faye Luppi, director of that county’s Violence Intervention Partnership, to organize them, write the protocols and prepare. She oversees the Electronic Monitoring and Victim Notification Project, which is carried out by Maine Pretrial Services, and is funded by a federal grant and the county.
Those two elements, organization and funding, were missing from the work at the state level. For all the potential benefits and the political capital invested in the issue, the effort to expand the use of electronic monitoring fizzled.
“I think the Legislature wanted to do something but there was: Where does this program live?” Luppi said.
It wasn’t appropriate for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence to coordinate efforts because it works with victims, Luppi said. The attorney general’s office, which prosecutes cases, wasn’t the right fit either. Maine Pretrial Services doesn’t operate in every county. The Maine Sheriffs’ Association could have made sense, but it didn’t have enough staff to manage the effort, she said. The Maine Department of Corrections said it couldn’t do it because it doesn’t have jurisdiction over defendants awaiting trial.
For a while it looked like the state Board of Corrections, which oversaw county jails, would manage a statewide push. A LePage-created task force recommended the board for the role, and Fredette sponsored a bill in 2013, LD 842, to establish a fund within the board that would allow it to accept money. In December 2014, the board approved three electronic monitoring pilot programs, in Sagadahoc, Somerset and Kennebec counties.
But soon after, in 2015, the board’s work stopped when LePage failed to nominate members to serve on it.
The effort could have lived on within another agency, but that would have required direction from the state’s top leader, Fredette said.
“I think that there was support for the idea. But without someone spearheading it within the executive branch, it just wasn’t going to go anywhere,” he said.
In Cumberland County, it proved essential for partners to work together, something that didn’t happen at the state level. It all starts with a conversation. The district attorney’s office, a defense attorney or members of the local high-risk domestic violence response team will suggest defendants whom Maine Pretrial Services will then assess to determine if they are a good fit.
Electronic monitoring isn’t for people who are unlikely to act violently while out on bail, Luppi said. (Because electronic monitoring is relatively inexpensive, one worry with expanding its use is that courts will impose it on those who would previously have been released without any conditions.) It’s also not intended for people who are very likely to act violently, who should remain in jail pending a trial.
Domestic violence advocates in Cumberland County, meanwhile, work with alleged victims to set the geographic areas where defendants shouldn’t be allowed to go, called exclusion zones. Victims also have to decide if they want to carry a device that will alert them if the defendant gets within a certain radius. This option isn’t available in all counties with electronic monitoring.
Eventually, a judge must approve the plan. Then a Maine Pretrial Services worker puts the bracelet, provided by the company Sentinel, on the alleged offenders and makes sure they know where they can and can’t go. Local law enforcement agencies and dispatch also need the relevant details about each case, in addition to access to the electronic system where they can track the devices’ GPS signal.
“That’s a lot of infrastructure to make sure everyone’s on board, knowing exactly what to do,” Luppi said.
Even though there wasn’t a clear way to organize electronic monitoring statewide, Fredette continued to work through the Legislature, sponsoring two more bills to fund a statewide program. LD 1002, which asked for $500,000 per year, died in 2016 when lawmakers didn’t appropriate any money for it. LD 1183, which asked for $1.87 million per year, died after lawmakers on the criminal justice committee voted it ought not to pass.
At one point district attorneys said they would welcome a domestic violence investigator in each of the state’s eight prosecutorial districts who could oversee the effort, said Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, which offer electronic monitoring. But that would have meant the creation of new positions.
“I think it just depends on the state of the budget at the time. If the money is not available then sometimes good ideas don’t become enacted,” she said.
With no real statewide support, the counties have absorbed the costs of personnel time and passed on the costs of the devices to the alleged offenders.
Since the program started in 2016, Cumberland County has monitored 33 alleged domestic violence offenders. It charges them between $8 and $12 per day, depending on their income, with some slots available for people who are indigent.
Much smaller Waldo County, meanwhile, charges defendants $5 per day for the devices, Sheriff Jeff Trafton said. Unlike Cumberland, it relies on a detective within the sheriff’s office to manage the electronic monitoring program, which it launched with a donation in 2015 from the proceeds of the Dexter 5K.
In some cases requiring defendants to pay for the ankle bracelets works because they don’t have to put up bail money. “When we ask for electronic monitoring, we’re not seeking bail. So sometimes a person’s able to pay for the electronic monitoring equipment when they don’t have to pay for bail,” said Maloney, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties.
But people who show up to court get their bail money back, and not everyone can afford electronic monitoring.
“It’s not fair to the offenders or the victim if the ability to pay is the deciding factor,” said Luppi, who coordinates Cumberland County’s response to domestic violence.
Similarly, a 2018 study urged agencies to “avoid putting the burden of paying for the … devices on the defendant, which, similar to money bonds, may discriminate based on socio-economic status.” Critics also raise concerns about requiring people to pay for their supervision before they’ve been convicted of a crime.
In the end, Fredette said an overall failure in leadership erased momentum for a statewide electronic monitoring program. “It was a failure of the [legislative] committee to some extent to really work together. It was a failure of the sheriffs’ association to really come to the table and the governor’s office to come to the table to truly want to solve difficult problems,” he said.
LePage, who left office at the beginning of the year, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Meanwhile, nearly half of homicides in Maine have continued to be linked to domestic violence, a rate that has remained the same for at least a decade. The Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, which reviews each death, noted in its 2018 report that “a lack of funding and infrastructure exists for meaningful, successful electronic monitoring.”
In addition, the number of people being held in jail before their trial has continued to grow statewide, and local jails have continued to ask for more funding from the state. Since the 1990s, the number of people unable to bail out — called pretrial prisoners — has reached unprecedented heights in Maine, filling some facilities beyond their maximum capacity.
“The falling apart of the Board of Corrections was then indirectly linked to an ongoing request for additional funds from the state for putting people in jail,” Fredette said. “It was a hamster wheel. It was circular.”
In Waldo County, the sheriff has used electronic monitoring to save the county money. For instance a woman with severe health issues needed to serve a sentence for theft, but it would have cost the county thousands to pay her medical bills, so Trafton placed her under house arrest on the ankle bracelet.
“We’re very flexible,” Trafton said. “If we can make it happen, if we can make it work, we’ll do it.”
Ankle bracelets are not foolproof, and it can take time for police to respond to violations, especially in rural areas, Trafton said. In Waldo County, when an alleged offender crosses a boundary, the monitoring company will call the detective in charge, and if he’s not available it defaults to Trafton who gets on the phone with dispatch to figure out who can respond, he said.
But the devices are one more tool to keep victims safe. Knowing where alleged offenders are “gives a lot of peace of mind to the victims, and that’s what I’m most interested in,” Trafton said.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley has re-established a task force to recommend ways to reduce the human and financial costs of pretrial incarceration, and it’s possible it will address electronic monitoring. The legislative Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is also convening a work group this summer to try to figure out how to stabilize funding for local jails and re-examine how to shorten some jail stays and cut costs.
Electronic monitoring isn’t a panacea and should only be used in specific instances, said Joel Merry, sheriff of Sagadahoc County and former chairman of the Board of Corrections. But, “As we continue to look for long-term solutions both around funding and criminal justice reform,” he said, “the use of electronic monitoring is certainly something that’s going to be part of the conversation.”
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.