AUGUSTA — The murders last June of a mother and her two children in Dexter underscores the need for legislation addressing bail in domestic violence cases, lawmakers were told Monday.
But even as the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee took testimony on the bail proposal, it was told that Gov. Paul LePage is planning next week to unveil his own package of domestic violence measures that will complement the bill presented Monday.
Meanwhile, several groups raised questions about the legislation prompted by the shotgun killings last June 13 of Dexter kindergarten teacher Amy Lake and her children, 12-year-old Monica and 13-year-old Coty, by the children’s father, Steven Lake, who then killed himself.
At the time, Lake was under a court order to stay away from the family after holding them at gunpoint last year, and was scheduled to go on trial for criminal threatening with a weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening.
“This tragic and highly publicized incident made the need for changes in Maine’s approach to domestic violence crimes all the more obvious,” said Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade. He said of Maine’s 23 homicides last year, 10 involved domestic violence.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, would require that bail in domestic violence cases be determined only by judges, not bail commissioners. Fredette’s bill also requires the judge to review the defendant’s criminal history, and says electronic monitoring may be a condition of bail.
The National Association of Social Workers said the bill represents another step toward prevention of domestic violence.
Acknowledging the seriousness of the issue, LePage’s public safety commissioner said the governor is due to present a package Feb. 22 that will complement Fredette’s bill. Commissioner John Morris, speaking neither for nor against Fredette’s proposal, also said that efforts are proceeding “full speed ahead” in other venues to address bail concerns.
Last week, Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley announced that bail commissioners can no longer set bail in domestic violence cases unless they have access to the defendant’s criminal history, information she said is crucial in making informed decisions.
Within a month, said Morris, bail commissioners will have access to “every piece of the criminal record” to make informed decisions in domestic violence cases.
And Morris said the state attorney general’s office is developing model policy to govern the use of electronic monitoring, an issue that caused considerable concern among those at Monday’s hearing.
The American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about several components of the bill, especially the bail and electronic monitoring provisions.
Alysia Melnick of the ACLU’s Maine chapter questioned whether electronic monitors give a false sense of security to victims, especially in rural areas where it takes police longer to respond to trouble calls. She also warned that the bail provision could deny defendants constitutional due process rights.
Jeremy Pratt of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also opposing the bill, also said the proposal is unclear on what kind of monitoring system would be used, who would pay for it and how it would work in rural areas. He also questioned a policy of sending all bail decisions to already-overburdened judges.
The Maine Criminal Law Advisory Committee’s John Pelletier said Maine law already allows the use of electronic monitoring — if it becomes available.
“We know that there is no such electronic monitoring available in the state,” he told the committee, which is also considering other domestic violence bills.