AUGUSTA — State lawmakers are considering a proposal to stem a growing trend of county jails being filled with people who have yet to be convicted of any crime.

“Maine faces a serious problem with the rate of pretrial incarceration populations in its county jails,” according to a report issued in December by the Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force. 

The rate has increased each of the last five years, to the point where in half of the county jails in Maine, more than 70 percent of the people being held last year were citizens awaiting trial. Androscoggin and Oxford county jails exceeded 80 percent, according to the report.

On Monday, during a public hearing on LD 1639 before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, lawmakers heard about recommendations from the task force to reduce the pretrial incarcerations.

One would eliminate mandatory minimum fines for certain offenses such as assault — though not domestic assaults — operating after suspension and drug offenses. Those offenses were listed because they are some of the most common and account for many of the fines imposed in state courts.

Other recommendations include imposing conditions on pretrial release such as abstaining from alcohol only when there is a demonstrated need. Many people arrested on bail violations have been incarcerated because they have been drinking while free on bail.

The report also calls for imposing restrictions on what bail commissioners can impose for bail conditions, such as abstaining from alcohol.

Another would raise from $25 to $100 the minimum limit for which an arrest warrant can be issued when a defendant has failed to pay the fine and then failed to appear in court on that matter alone.

On a related matter, the U.S. Justice Department issued a letter this week to state court administrators that outlined constitutional practices for courts to follow, including not punishing individuals for accidentally failing to pay fines, not using bail or bond practices that keep defendants in prison “solely because they cannot pay for their release,” and not denying them due process when enforcing payments.

Maine Judicial Branch Government and Media Counsel Mary Ann Lynch pointed out that no one in Maine is in jail for failure to pay a fine.

“In Maine people are jailed only after ignoring a court order to return to court and explain why their fine is not being paid, or when it is clear that they have the ability to pay and do not pay,” Lynch said Monday.

State law governs hearings on unpaid fines, she said, and judges will set up payment plans that can be as low as $10 to $25 a month.

The state task force found there was no single reason for the increase in pretrial detainments. Fourteen percent of pretrial inmates were there solely for failure to appear at a court hearing concerning unpaid fines. Another 15 percent were there for violating probation, with two-thirds of those people also held for unpaid fines or restitutions.

During his testimony Monday, Justice Robert Mullen, who chaired the Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force, said that in many cases, defendants who have been ordered to pay fines do not come back to the court to seek a different payment plan because they feel hopeless over their situation.

He made reference to a case in which a defendant owed more than $3,000 in fines and was in court for another offense that was adding to the total. He said the defendant asked for a $25-per-month payment plan.

“There is a percentage of people who feel hopeless because their lives are often so dysfunctional,” Justice Mullen said.

As if to illustrate the situation, three defendants appeared Monday in Knox County Unified Court in Rockland after being arrested over the past weekend for failure to appear to explain why they had not been making fine payments.

One was a 29-year-old woman who was living at the Hospitality House homeless shelter in Rockport and had given birth less than a month ago to a child with medical problems that have required trips to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, attorney Jason Heath told Judge Susan Sparaco.

Sparaco agreed to let the woman out of jail Monday in exchange for a $100 payment this week on her unpaid fines and $25 per month after that.

A 24-year-old man was ordered released after he agreed to pay $50 this week and $50 per month for his unpaid fines. Attorney Heath told the judge that the man had little work over the winter, since he shovels snow.

And the third defendant, a 42-year-old man, promised he could pay nearly $2,000 in fines by next month because he will be elver fishing.

The defendant told the judge that he was between a rock and a hard place since he couldn’t fish if he was in jail. He said all his belongings are in a storage unit and that they will be sold off soon if he cannot earn some money.

“I’m trying to figure out how to survive,” the man told Sparaco.

Sparaco agreed to have him released by paying $150 this week and the remainder by the end of next month.

The Judiciary Committee may take a vote on LD 1639 and the proposed recommendation as soon as Tuesday afternoon.


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