AUGUSTA — A commission looking for solutions to the financial crisis in the state’s jail system was asked Friday to rethink how bail works.

Elizabeth Simoni, executive director of Maine Pretrial Services, told the commission the cash bail system used throughout the U.S. is antiquated and detains people more on the basis of how much money they have rather than by how dangerous they are.

“There are a lot of dangerous people with access to cash and property,” she said.

Simoni was one of five people who addressed the Legislature’s Commission to Study the State Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System, which held a public hearing Friday to take ideas from the public on ways to address the 75 percent funding shortfall the unified jail system is facing.

The 15-member panel is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature the first week of December on possible solutions for the looming money, bed space and corrections officer shortage that is threatening to collapse the system.

She said if more low-risk offenders were released while awaiting trial, there could be lower jail populations and reduced recidivism.

While a bail amount is determined using risk assessment, with higher amounts given to inmates considered riskier to the public, Simoni noted that even a $100 bail can hold some poorer inmates charged with minor offenses for more than a month while waiting for their case to be adjudicated.

She said the alternative would involve releasing inmates before a trial based entirely on risk assessment, instead of a financially linked bail.

Several board members agreed that many of the state’s jails save millions already by working with the nonprofit organization to assess the risks of releasing inmates awaiting trial and allowing some to be released on a contract while supervised by Pretrial Services caseworkers.

The savings from having fewer inmates in the Kennebec County jail is about $2 million a year, while the county pays $130,000 for Pretrial Services, according to Capt. Marsha Alexander, who is a commission member and Kennebec County’s jail administrator.

On any given day, about 70 inmates are out on pretrial contracts, she said.

Simoni said her organization doesn’t advocate for risky inmates to be released, but said the organization’s research, along with other reports, shows that when low-risk offenders are held for a long periods of time, it generally does more harm than good.

Simoni cited a study of 750,000 pretrial cases that found inmates who were detained more than 48 hours were four times more likely to commit another crime within two years, even when criminal history, risk, age and other major factors were included.

“The cash is used as a device to protect the public, and I understand that; but that’s not what would keep the public safe,” she said.

She said she recommends that use of Pretrial Services become standardized in the 15 county jails (while the state has 16 counties, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties share a jail). She said the 11 counties in the state that use the service could use it more, and the remaining jails in the system that don’t use the service could benefit from contracting with it.

Counties that Pretrial Services doesn’t list as contracting with it are Somerset, Piscataquis, Lincoln-Sagadahoc and Waldo.

Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy, who also addressed the commission, recommended that the unified jail system be written off as a mistake and dismantled. Under the system, the Franklin County jail serves as a 72-hour holding center for inmates and doesn’t hold long-term inmates.

Franklin County commissioners decided last week to withhold the county’s November payment to the State Board of Corrections and to negotiate a contract to resume sending inmates to Somerset County if the state jail financial crisis worsens.

If the study commission does not reach what the county considers to be a favorable solution in early December, Franklin County officials said they want to have a contract to send inmates to Somerset, which has bed space and is not cooperating with the unified system and accepting boarder inmates.

Somerset County Commissioner Lynda Quinn told the commission that while there is already a list of goals for finding efficiencies and reducing recidivism, more state money is necessary for real progress to be made.

She said the system has withheld the last two quarterly payments to Somerset County and is still dramatically short of the cash needed to make its next quarterly payments.

“I don’t see how you can address this without any more money,” she said.

Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at:

kschroeder@mainetoday.com