Nationwide, people are second-guessing the fairness of the way courts have historically decided who is kept in jail and who is released while awaiting trial: the cash bail system. Under that system, a judge or bail commissioner sets a cash bail amount that an accused must pay to be released.
Critics point out that under this system, how much money you have—not the risk you pose to the community or the likelihood that you will appear at your next court date—determines whether you stay in jail while awaiting trial. Individuals who are dangerous or are likely to flee may be released if they have the means to post bail, while low-income people who cannot afford to post bail languish in jail for months or even years waiting for their day in court, even if they pose a much lower risk. These defendants are alienated from their families, lose their jobs, may lose their homes and cars, and their community ties are severed, for lack of money. Many people in this situation plead guilty and take a criminal conviction just to get out of jail.
However, there is a national movement in bail reform that seeks to move away from cash-based bail to a risk-assessment system, and defendants in Maine are among those who have an opportunity to bail out with little or no money down.
Here’s the thing about bail: It is not intended to be a punishment, and instead is set primarily to ensure that you will appear for future court dates. The idea of cash bail is that if you have $1000 on the line, you’re more likely to show up for court. But national studies indicate that there is little-to-no difference in a defendant’s likelihood to appear for future court appearances when there is no money on the line.
Maine still uses cash bail, but also has a risk-based model in place: Maine Pretrial Services is a non-profit agency that provides bail supervision to people who may otherwise have to wait in jail until trial. According to Shawn Lagrega, Deputy Director of Maine Pretrial Services, the goal is to impose the least restrictive conditions that will ensure defendants appear for all future court dates and do not commit any new violations.
Maine Pretrial Services staff go to the jail every day and screen every in-custody defendant to determine whether that person is a candidate for a Pretrial Services supervision contract. Defendants charged with any type of crime, including murder, may be eligible. The intake evaluation is extensive, and includes questions about the defendant’s residence, employment, family, criminal history, mental health and substance abuse history. If there are mental health or substance abuse concerns, a screener may assess the need for, and availability of, treatment. The screener then attempts to verify as much of the information as possible, contacting family members, employers, and probation officers as appropriate. All that data is used to determine the level of risk the defendant poses to the community, and the likelihood he or she will appear for future court dates.
If the risk-assessment reveals that release is appropriate, Maine Pretrial Services will offer a “contract” that includes any Court-ordered Conditions of Release, but as few additional conditions as possible. Common Court-ordered conditions include not using or possessing alcohol or illegal drugs, submitting to random search and testing for alcohol or illegal drugs, and participating in substance abuse or mental health treatment. And depending on the charge, there may be a “no contact” provision, prohibiting the defendant from having any contact or communication with an alleged victim.
A Pretrial Services supervision contract will include the above conditions, and likely also a requirement that the defendant check-in on a weekly basis with caseworkers from Maine Pretrial Services. At those visits, caseworkers will assess the defendant’s compliance with conditions, such as through on-site drug and alcohol testing. According to Deputy Director LaGrega, the length of supervision averages 90 days for defendants charged with misdemeanors and 140 days for defendants charged with felonies, but can last the entire length of a case through trial, and sometimes beyond.
As LaGrega points out, a person’s inability to post cash bail has a ripple effect—people are torn out of their communities, which can have a profound and long-lasting impact on families, employment, and community ties. If you are arrested in Maine, Maine Pretrial Services gives you the opportunity to be with family and work in the community while awaiting trial, based on the risk you present, not based on the contents of your bank account.
See as published by the Seacoast Media Group on August 26, 2017: