Defendants instructed to report to York County Jail on Sept. 8 or later have seen their sentences delayed until at least early December, and many weren’t notified their sentences were changed until arriving to check in.
The delays were spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the order from Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz. Neither the York County Sheriff’s office nor the court know how many people are affected.
“In light of those concerns, the court has determined that at this time, it is imprudent for people to serve a sentence for which they have been previously granted a stay of execution,” Moskowitz wrote. The order directs anyone who had their stay extended to report to the York County Courthouse for a hearing on Dec. 3.
York County Sheriff William King confirmed that the jail does not notify self-reporters before they show up.
Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said many lawyers also were not notified that their clients must appear at the courthouse, so he plans to attend on Dec. 3 to ensure that the defendants have counsel.
“Part of the reason I plan to be there that day is so that, as appropriate, I can appoint counsel to represent folks who are there whose counsel may not have gotten the message for some reason, or may not have been aware of the problem,” Andrus said.
An attendant at the York County clerk’s office said she was unable to locate who the order to appear was sent to, and it was her understanding defendants were being handed the order at the jail and turned away when they arrived to serve sentences.
The court gives the self-report order to the jail, but not to the person convicted or their lawyers, confirmed Amy Quinlan, director of communications for the Maine Judicial Branch. “The self-report order has a date on it some weeks or months in the future when they can come back to court to get a new reporting date,” she said in an email.
Some say the delays are necessary because COVID-19 spreads through understaffed Maine jails. But the delays also are a setback to people who committed lower-level crimes that land them in a county jail instead of state prison.
For a variety of reasons, some defendants are allowed to report to prison on a designated date, giving the person time to settle personal matters. Until then, a defendant is typically under bail conditions.
Defendants serving time in a county jail typically have sentences of nine months or less, meaning they usually committed lower-level crimes, hope to do the jail time and move on.
Quinlan said if people don’t show up for their jail dates, law enforcement must inform district attorneys.
While the number of people who have had their ability to enter the York County jail is unclear, Andrus said the issue is “pervasive.” Several criminal defense lawyers contacted by the Monitor said they hadn’t run into the issue themselves but have heard about jail delays in Cumberland and Aroostook counties as well.
The conditions that defendants must meet between sentencing and reporting to jail are strict, and violations can happen easily, Andrus said.
“If a person uses alcohol when there was an alcohol restriction, that may be a crime,” Andrus said. “And it’s easy to say, ‘So don’t drink.’ But the reality is that the longer time goes on, the more difficult it is for people to comport themselves to the requirements.
“People can’t plan for jobs. People can’t plan for housing,” Andrus said. “Many of our indigent population are not people who can maintain their housing during a period of incarceration.”
ACLU: Send fewer people to county jails
Emma Bond, the legal director at the ACLU of Maine, said the issue is multi-layered. For one, she feels that putting someone into a crowded county jail that is battling a deadly virus is not the answer. But preventing someone from serving their time and moving forward is not proper, either.
“The priority needs to be on getting as many people as possible out of these facilities,” she said.
Bond said there should be a “system-wide effort” to reduce the number of people incarcerated.
“Any order allowing for an execution of a sentence, to an extent, is good if it keeps people out of jail,” Bond said. “But it places the uncertainty of a COVID outbreak on the person. It needs to be a system-wide response, as opposed to placing that on individuals who still have their sentences hanging over their heads.”
Also, said Andrus, the MCILS director, “These things affect poor and indigent clients more substantially than they do people with resources.”
He said it is the state’s responsibility to navigate COVID-19 without placing undue burdens on those who need to serve their sentences.
“The bottom line is that criminal justice cannot be meted out at the convenience of any of the participants,” he said. When people are sentenced, they enter a contract with the state, Andrus continued, and part of that contract is, in many cases, jail time.
“The state has to hold a percentage of the deal by administering the punishment at the time that was bargained for, or the state has to forgo its punishment,” he said.