AUGUSTA — The head of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association said Tuesday his organization is planning strong opposition to a proposal to increase the maximum time a person can be held in jail before seeing a judge.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, president of the sheriff’s association and member of the State Board of Corrections, which oversees the state’s county jails, said extending the maximum time a person can be held before appearing before a judge from 48 to 72 hours would potentially cause a civil rights violation and exacerbate the ongoing problem of crowding at county jails.
“We believe citizens in the state of Maine should be arraigned in a timely fashion,” Liberty said.
Those accused of a crime and held at a jail must now see a judge for an initial appearance, or arraignment, within 48 hours of their arrest. Judges use the hearing to determine bail amounts and probation conditions after hearing from prosecutors and defense attorneys. The time limit excludes weekends and holidays, so it’s possible for someone accused of a crime to sit in jail for up to six days before seeing a judge.
But Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said judges often aren’t available within the 48-hour window. Unable to schedule a hearing, Smith said he has had to drop charges against people, even those accused of violent crimes.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 12 to consider extending the maximum hold time to 72 hours. A committee of prosecutors and defense attorneys recommended the change after hearing from Smith.
Liberty said he expects county commissioners and the Maine Jail Association to join the Maine Sheriff’s Association in opposing the proposal.
“It sounds like they don’t have enough judicial resources in Washington County,” Liberty said.
The sheriff said there have been times his office has had to scramble to schedule a hearing within the 48-hour window. He said counties can schedule video arraignments with judges across the state.
“If it’s a public safety issue I will not release an inmate until he’s been seen by a judge,” Liberty said. “We always work it out, as does everyone else. I’ve heard of no problems other than Washington County.”
Liberty believes it is important to hold arraignments as quickly as possible because those accused of a crime are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Adding another 24-hours to the maximum would be excessive, Liberty said.
“It puts a hardship on people,” he said.
Moreover, by holding inmates longer, jails will have even greater problems with crowding, Liberty said. The population at the Kennebec County jail, for example, increases by up to 25 inmates over the weekend. Many of those inmates are released on bail after a hearing with a judge, which typically occurs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If courts waited another 72 hours before an arraignment, Liberty said the jail population could increase by 30 or more inmates between hearings.
“It makes it very difficult,” he said. “We have population issues all over the state of Maine. This will only contribute to that.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642