The use of an alternative sentencing program designed to keep Mainers out of jail has increased, but it still accounts for less than 5 percent of cases in the county that used it most often, according to a recent study.
Researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that deferred dispositions, which give criminal defendants the chance to earn reduced or dismissed sentences, rose 12.8 percent across Maine from 2014 to 2017.
“A deferred disposition typically involves the accused pleading guilty to a charge and agreeing to meet certain conditions over a period of time, commonly one year,” said George Shaler, a co-author of the report and the director of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at USM.
If defendants meet those conditions, their cases are either dismissed or the defendants are found guilty of lesser crimes than the ones with which they were originally charged. If defendants don’t meet the terms, they are convicted of the charges to which they pleaded guilty, saving the court system the time and expense of a trial.
In a recent deferred disposition in Penobscot County, Maine Game Warden Jeremy Judd, who was accused of reaching under a woman’s shorts during a 2019 concert in Bangor, paid a $300 fine and his case was closed in November.
In exchange for his guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge in January 2020, charges of assault and unlawful sexual touching filed against Judd, 44, of Mechanic Falls were dismissed. Conditions of the deferred disposition included attending counseling sessions, checking in regularly with Maine Pretrial Services, abstaining from alcohol and testing for alcohol use.
Judd’s case was rare for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, the prosecutorial district that used deferred dispositions the least in just 0.06 percent of cases in 2017, the study found. Prosecutorial District 6, made up of Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, used it the most, in 4.7 percent of its cases that year.
R. Christopher Almy, who was the district attorney in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties during the study’s time frame, said Monday that deferred dispositions “were helpful in resolving cases in certain limited circumstances.
“Otherwise I felt that deferred dispositions kept the prosecutor from making tough decisions,” he said. “Rather than analyzing a case carefully, deferred dispositions enabled the state to duck out of making tough calls on whether to proceed with prosecution.”
Marianne Lynch replaced Almy as district attorney in early 2019 but he continues to work as a prosecutor.
She said Monday that the study didn’t look at all the ways prosecutors may defer sentencing and keep defendants out of jail outside of formal deferred dispositions. Lynch estimated that in her two years on the job, her office has agreed to about 150 diversions.
For example, Lynch’s office tries to help people get their driver’s licenses back after they’re charged with operating after suspension.
“ADA’s will often continue the case (sometimes a number of times) in order to allow defendants to get their licenses back,” she said. “The benefit of this type of diversion is two-fold: it does not saddle defendants with court fees which can be a challenge to pay; it does not result in another suspension based on the conviction.”
Andrew Robinson, the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties and head of the Maine Prosecutors Association, called deferred dispositions “an important tool used by prosecutors to hold offenders accountable by requiring them to engage in treatment along with other conditions.
“If the offender is unsuccessful, the state can still proceed with the more traditional sentencing alternatives available under the criminal code,” he said.
Deferred dispositions, allowed since 2004, were used in 4.4 percent of cases in Robinson’s counties in 2017.
The average time for which cases were deferred during the study period was 11 months. The cases most commonly involved the following crimes: theft by unauthorized taking, in 11 percent of cases; domestic violence assault, 8 percent; drunken driving, 8 percent; drug possession, 6 percent; and operating after suspension, 6 percent.
The goal of the research, the first of its kind in Maine, was to explore the effect of deferred disposition on future criminal activity, especially among those charged with domestic violence and sex offenses.
Data from the study showed that 49 percent of all defendants with deferred cases had subsequent cases, the majority of which were misdemeanor or civil violations, such as traffic tickets. The remaining 30 percent were felony cases, according to Robyn Dumont, a research associate with the Justice Policy Program at USM.
The report’s findings suggest deferred disposition can work for some defendants, according to Shaler.
“That said, to achieve a higher success rate the justice system should provide some monitoring to ensure defendants are adhering to deferred disposition agreement conditions,” he said of the study’s findings.
The study did not compare data of those with deferred dispositions to those who served jail or prison sentences or participated in special programs designed for first-time offenders charged with operating under the influence of intoxicants.
Nearly 20 percent of all deferral cases contained a domestic violence charge, the study found.
The executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence also called for more monitoring of defendants on deferred dispositions.
“While MCEDV is not necessarily opposed to the use of deferred disposition in some domestic violence cases, we do feel that these defendants should be monitored to ensure compliance with all conditions associated with their release to protect the safety of those they are alleged to have victimized,” Francine Garland Stark said.