The Penobscot County Jail in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

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The inmate population at the state’s 15 county jails has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the past three weeks, the result of collaborative efforts to dramatically reduce the number of defendants awaiting trial and control the spread of the coronavirus within jails’ cramped quarters.

As of Friday, county jails had 1,128 inmates, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. That’s down from 1,595 three weeks earlier — a 29.3 percent decline. The efforts to reduce the inmate population have included lower bail amounts and plea agreements that allow inmates to be released on time-served sentences.

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As of Thursday, no inmates in a Maine jail or prison had been diagnosed with the virus but experts have expressed concern that the inability of inmates to keep their distance from others would make it difficult to control the spread of the virus in those facilities.

In the state prison system, a worker at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren tested positive for the coronavirus this week, and the Maine Department of Corrections had seven inmates in isolation as of Thursday awaiting the results of coronavirus tests.

Sheriffs, who oversee the county jails, took steps in early and mid-March to allow the early release of inmates who were nearing the end of their sentences. That reduced the total jail population by 245 inmates from March 13 to 20. The population at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor on Thursday morning was 118, down from 146 on March 13.

On Wednesday, in an illustration of how the coronavirus outbreak is driving court system decisions, Superior Court Justice Bruce Mallonee accepted several plea agreements that allowed defendants, including Johnnie Thomas and Ramona Gomez, to be released at the end of the day.

Thomas, 35, of Bangor, was charged with two counts of assault on an officer, Class C felonies, and one count of refusing to submit to arrest, a Class D misdemeanor and three Class E crimes. The district attorney’s office agreed to reduce the felony charges to misdemeanors, dismiss the Class E crimes and recommend a sentence of 85 days, or time served.

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Thomas’ attorney, Harris Mattson of Bangor, said Thursday that before the virus outbreak, the prosecutor was going to recommend a sentence of nine months in jail.

“The prosecutor was willing to agree to a sentence of time served given the nature of the case and the fact that COVID-19 will spread rapidly through jails and prisons, endangering inmates, correctional officers, and the families and communities those officers return to each day,” he said.

Gomez, 51, formerly of Greenbush and Ohio, was charged with aggravated assault, a Class B crime, and assault, a Class D crime, related to an incident at a relative’s home in May 2014 when she cut a woman’s face with a piece of glass. Gomez later was charged with a Class C failure to appear when she did not return to Maine from Ohio for court dates.

On Wednesday, Gomez appeared in court in Bangor by video conference from Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset where she has been boarded out from the Bangor jail. She pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and failure to appear. The assault charge was dismissed in a plea agreement with the district attorney’s office.

Gomez was sentenced to two years in prison with all but time served, or 170 days, suspended, to be followed by two years of probation. She also was ordered to pay $4,533 to the Victims’ Compensation Fund for expenses it paid to the victim. She faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 on the aggravated assault charge and up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 on the failure to appear charge.

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In imposing those and other sentences, the judge mentioned the need to settle cases so inmates could be released from jails to limit the spread of COVID-19. Mallonee also cited the virus in lowering the bail of an 86-year-old Lincoln man accused of using a stolen gun to shoot his son on Tuesday from the $10,000 cash requested by the district attorney’s office to $2,000 with supervision by Maine Pretrial Services and house arrest.

Mallonee insisted that bail be set at an amount Gerald McLaughlin of Lincoln would be able to post.

“What is it going to take to keep this 86-year-old man out of jail?” the judge asked. “What is it going to take to keep him from dying of the coronavirus when it invades the jail, which it inevitably will?”

Judges in Maine have great discretion in accepting the terms of plea agreements and setting bail amounts and conditions.

As judges, defense lawyers, sheriffs and prosecutors work to reduce jail populations, Maine’s court system is also trying out new arrangements to prevent coronavirus’ spread within courtrooms.

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Inside the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor, prosecutors and defense attorneys now can use computers from their homes or offices to appear remotely in court. Inmates appear from the jail while the judge and a clerk are in Courtroom 101, where everyone usually appears in person, so the session can be digitally recorded and a proper record maintained.

The Bangor courthouse is the first in the state to implement the system but it is not without some problems, including difficulty hearing and understanding what defendants are saying from the jail. Also, when lawyers want to consult with defendants, everyone else must log off to maintain attorney-client privilege before logging back on.

Mattson said that he did not think the system worked that well on Wednesday.

“As a result of working with my client, I knew that he understood both his trial rights and that he would be waiving those rights by pleading guilty,” he said. “The audio feed from the jail was quite distorted, but I was able to hear him acknowledge an understanding of his rights and the consequences of pleading guilty.”

The new system could not be used in Gomez’s case because the facility where she was being held was not set up for it. She appeared by a closed video conferencing system from the jail while her attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor, and Assistant District Attorney Alice Clifford, who prosecuted the case, were in the courtroom with the judge and a clerk.

It could not be determined Thursday how many other courthouses in the state are trying the kind of remote setup that Bangor is using. It is being tried in Androscoggin County, according to District Attorney Andrew Robinson.

Most courthouses around the state remain open, but for about half the number of hours they normally are. Nearly all criminal and civil cases have been postponed and judges mostly are handling emergency matters including first appearances of arrestees, requests for protection from abuse and harassment orders, and mental health and child protective matters.

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