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The Maine court system has increased the number of days that a newly arrested person can go before a judge, in an effort to free unconvicted people from jail faster during the coronavirus outbreak.
If a person can’t make bail after they’ve been arrested, they can wait up to 48 hours behind bars before seeing a judge and learning whether they will be released or held pending bail. Those court appearances, called arraignments, are usually scheduled in Maine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
But as the new coronavirus spreads across Maine, it poses a particular threat to people in jails who have no choice but congregate in close quarters at a time when public health officials are urging people not to.
As a result, the Maine courts will now schedule criminal arraignments for every weekday, Monday through Friday, said Amy Quinlan, a spokeswoman for the judicial branch. That gives judges more chances to release people from jail if they don’t pose a flight risk or threat to public safety.
“We’re trying to focus all resources on public safety issues and move along the things that are not,” Quinlan said. “Leadership [at the judicial branch] is meeting daily, if not more, to talk about and work through a lot of these issues.”
The decision was made on Monday. It followed an announcement on Friday that the court system would siginficantly curtail its activities until after May 1, including the postponement of all trials and grand jury proceedings.
Maine superior and district courts also issued orders Monday to vacate all outstanding arrest warrants for people with unpaid fines and fees, which will curb the flow of people into jail on technical violations.
Tina Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Criminal Defense Association, said her organization supports the decision to move to five-day-a-week arraignments and that it’s a good idea regardless of the public health crisis.
“I think this crisis is highlighting how the fairytale we’ve always held dear — that we only lock up people who are dangerous — is falling apart quickly,” Nadeau said.
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease