Before this summer, Maimouna Cherif considered herself fairly familiar with the country’s criminal legal system. The third-year student at Colby College had read articles and taken classes, including a legal anthropology course last year in which she was first introduced to CourtWatchME.

CourtWatchME, following the lead of other court-watching programs across the country, sends volunteers into Maine courtrooms to observe, record, document and analyze arraignment hearings.

The idea is both to collect data about what happens in the hearings and to inform the public of any problems. By showing up, observers also can have an impact on what happens in the courtroom, and whether court officials are implementing any reforms that have become law.

Cherif, who joined the effort as a student intern in late May, was at Waterville District Court for morning arraignments in June when she noticed there were no defense attorneys physically present in the room.

Dozens of people charged with various crimes were waiting to enter their pleas, Cherif said.

Eventually, she recalled, an attorney was made available to the defendants over video conferencing.


I think the thing that’s shocked me the most is the shortage of defense lawyers in Maine,” Cherif said. “I did not know it was OK for a defense attorney to Zoom in.”

Cherif said she has attended more than 80 Kennebec County arraignment hearings since late May, and she’s observed this same phenomenon more than once. She’s observed people dealing with mental health disorders and addiction consider plea agreements that don’t include the resources they need to address the underlying issues that led them to commit crimes. She’s noticed that defendants often are confused by the terms of these plea agreements.

People are not being attended to when they’re in court,” Cherif said. “The criminal legal system doesn’t actually change issues that people have.”

CourtWatchME is still new. For now, it is mainly focused on gathering information from arraignment hearings in Kennebec County courts. But the hope is to expand across the state as a way of countering the lack of centralized, publicly accessible information about what happens in Maine courtrooms.

Members of the public generally can watch individual hearings and access criminal files from their respective county courthouses, but aside from hearings being held over Zoom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, much of this can only be done in person.

Maine began posting records from certain types of civil cases online earlier last year, but still has yet to expand the program to cover criminal records.


“That’s exactly why we’re doing this project,” said Charlotte Warren, an adjunct professor at Colby and one of the coordinators of CourtWatchME. Warren also is a Democratic state representative representing Hallowell, and she chairs the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Warren, who is overseeing the project with Colby’s Maine Drug Policy Lab, said the goals are to increase public awareness and to assess how often defendants who need them are connected during the judicial process to resources for mental health and substance use disorder.

Warren says officials talk a good game about focusing criminal efforts on the people who traffic drugs, not the users. Watching what happens in court will help the public see if that really is the case.

“Everyone that works in the system – prosecutors, law enforcement, folks who work for the Department of Public Safety, the attorney general’s office, the Department of Corrections – they all say over and over, ‘No, no, no. We are only responding with the criminal legal system to the traffickers, those that are selling that poison to our community”‘, Warren said. “You hear that story over and over. So let’s just look at the data.”

Warren said the group plans to release its first report on arraignments in Kennebec County in the fall, detailing who’s going to jail for what types of crimes, and how often defendants were referred to addiction treatment, or other diversion-related programs.

Eventually, the hope is to expand into Cumberland and Androscoggin counties.


In the courtrooms, volunteers armed with bright yellow lanyards and clipboards collect defendants’ names, charges, docket numbers and demographic information. In each case, they make note of the prosecutor, any defense attorneys present and the presiding judge. In addition to recording the defendant’s plea, they’re supposed to pay attention to what happens next and whether defendants are referred to any resources.

Did you hear mental health mentioned, by anyone?” Warren says. “Was substance or alcohol use disorder mentioned by anyone? Was treatment mentioned by anyone? Was diversion mentioned by anyone?”

Those collecting the information so far include people interested in criminal justice reform, those who have worked in the courts or been affected by them and students.

They include Matt Matheny, who is finishing his first year at Colby – and who, like Cherif, is a paid intern for the organization.

Matheny learned about CourtWatchME in Warren’s class on criminal justice reform, which included a class trip to the courthouse in Augusta.

I’ve always been interested in criminal justice and the criminal legal system, and making it better for people involved in it,” Matheny said. “I think it’s easy to read about the problems or things that are wrong or bad about a system, but it’s stronger to actually see what’s happening.”


He said he wishes more information from Maine’s judicial system was easily available to the public.

I think really anything that would result in more transparency would be great,” Matheny said. “There is no good way to get information on things other than by sitting in the courtroom.”

Meagan Sway, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said it’s been difficult advocating for judicial reform at the Maine Legislature when there’s so little state-based data to refer to in testimony to lawmakers.

“A lot of times when we’re up there testifying, it’s clear that a lot of people in the Legislature are unaware of what happens every day in our courtrooms,” Sway said. “I think it’s something most people are unaware of.”

Sway said she and other advocates for reform often have to rely heavily on national data or information that national organizations with the time and money to spend on deep dives for records have managed to compile about Maine.

The ACLU of Maine is not involved in CourtWatchME, though some ACLU offices in other states have their own court-watching programs.

Sway said she’s excited to see the data that court watchers collect from Maine courts and hopes state leaders put it to good use.

“So much of what happens in the courtroom is not publicized, and sometimes it’s really harrowing,” Sway said. “Once it’s more public what happens in the courtroom, it’s really important for us as a state to not get defensive, but to acknowledge the problems, and what we can do to make things better.”

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