PORTLAND (AP) – Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion is reducing the number of hours when defense lawyers can meet with inmates to cut back on overtime spending for jail employees.

Attorneys can now meet with inmates three times a day – morning, early afternoon and late afternoon – five days a week. Beginning Monday, Dion will eliminate morning and early afternoon sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, offsetting some of the loss by adding 15 minutes to each remaining visitation period.

Defense lawyers say the jail’s hours are already too restrictive and that further time restrictions could compromise an inmate’s constitutional right to legal representation. Dion cut evening and weekend hours for attorney visits in 2000 when the jail had a staff shortage.

“We don’t believe this is reasonable access,” said Robert Ruffner, a criminal defense attorney who says Cumberland County gives far less access to inmates than many jails in Maine and elsewhere in the country. “I think it definitely raises constitutional concerns.”

Dion said the number of inmates has grown and now stands at 430. That requires 141 employees, but the jail is budgeted for only 130 positions and must make up for the shortage with overtime, he said.

Dion said he is cutting back on overtime to bring the department back in line with its budget by the end of the year.

The changes would result in $45,000 in saved overtime spending, because officers would not have to escort inmates and lawyers through the facility or supervise the interviews themselves, Dion said. The jail is now $250,000 over budget halfway through the year.

“I think we’re providing reasonable access. Reasonableness is a judgment call,” Dion said. “If a court declares our level of access is not reasonable, we’ll have to modify our approach, but what I’m trying to do right now is balance reasonable access with budgetary realities.”

Louise Roback, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said it is not clear how much access inmates need with their attorneys to meet constitutional requirements.

“I don’t know exactly where the bright line is for what’s constitutionally required,” she said. “Pre-trial detainees have the right to counsel and that would include the meaningful right to counsel.”

Ruffner said cutbacks on visitation hours will diminish the quality of counsel for prisoners.

“We’re left to either ask for a continuance … or try to squeeze an hour and a half worth of advice into five minutes,” he said. “When you’re trying to advise them on decisions that affect their lives, when you’re pressured in terms of time, that’s not a good thing.”

AP-ES-06-10-03 0216EDT

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