Due Process: Inside Maine’s County Courthouses
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Seven months ago, The Maine Monitor set out to determine whether Maine’s county court system was fair and consistent from one part of the state to another. Would someone convicted of a crime in Aroostook County get the same sentence as someone in York County? What seemed like a simple question turned out to be complicated by a lack of consistent data, elected district attorneys with different approaches to justice and programs that have proven to be successful for some but unavailable to others.
We examine the criminal justice system at a time when there’s appetite for major change. With a low crime rate and relatively few violent crimes, Maine could become a place for innovation when it comes to the treatment of those with mental illness, substance use disorder or trauma that sometimes leads to crime. Our series looks at the system – successes and failures – to test whether defendants and victims can rely on it to give them due process.
While Maine continues to grapple with reforms to its criminal justice system, other states have moved forward with measures designed to end or relax mandatory minimum sentences, restrict the use of solitary confinement and reform the bail code.
Advocates say the Democratic-led legislature has created an unparalleled appetite for change in Maine’s criminal justice system, but a partisan standoff over returning to session amid the coronavirus pandemic may delay reforms for months.
More than 400 pieces of Maine legislation are in limbo, including measures to reform the state’s criminal justice system, following the sudden adjournment of the Legislature last week because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus. There is urgency to decide on these bills before new representatives are elected in November.
More than 9,000 people are incarcerated in Maine jails every year for one simple reason: They didn’t show up for their court date. Advocates say a text message system that would send court date reminders to defendants’ cell phones could help reduce that number. Others say a paper reminder should be enough.
Washington County officials, feeling neglected by the district attorney they share with Hancock County, want their own prosecutorial district to help address the growth of drug-related offenses. The unequal relationship between the counties highlights a disparity in Maine’s district court system.
Deferred dispositions are handled differently in Cumberland County compared to the rest of Maine, exemplifying another disparity in the state’s judicial system.
An e-filing and case management system, scheduled for full installation by 2022, will provide access to data for judicial officials and state legislators seeking to determine where resources are needed.
Efforts to eliminate cash bail are being considered in the legislative and judicial branches as Maine examines ways to reform its criminal justice system.
Through plea bargains, mandatory minimums and growing political clout, Maine’s DAs wield plenty of power in an increasingly inconsistent judicial system.
In a system full of inconsistencies and heavy caseloads, Maine’s eight elected district attorneys focus on public safety and potential judicial reforms.
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