Saturday, March 8, 2014
Time and distance are supposed to shrink in the Information Age. But in Maine's court system, things are moving in the opposite direction.
A proposal before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court calls for extending the time that someone who has been arrested can be held from 48 hours to 72 hours. This means that someone arrested before a holiday weekend could spend as many as six days behind bars before a judge could determine bail conditions and advise him about his right to counsel.
2002 File Photo/Gregory Rec
Technology has made it possible for real-time communications between people all over the globe. People who need to get together can do so easily. Work gets done faster and more efficiently.
That's the promise, anyway.
Currently, people under arrest in Maine can sit in jail for two business days (weekends and holidays don't count) before they see a judge. Instead of looking for a way to reduce that time, there is a proposal before the state Supreme Judicial Court to make it even longer.
A panel of lawyers assembled to address a lack of court resources in Washington County has proposed extending the amount of time someone who's been arrested can be held without seeing a judge from 48 hours to 72 hours.
This means that someone arrested before a holiday weekend could spend as many as six days behind bars before a judge could advise him about his right to retain counsel and determine bail conditions.
The panel is addressing a serious problem presented by Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith. He said he has had to release potentially dangerous inmates who could not be taken to court in time to meet the 48 hour deadline.
That's certainly a problem, but keeping every other defendant stuck behind bars for another day is not the right solution.
For one thing, many county jails are cash-strapped and some are overcrowded. Extending the time defendants can be held by 50 percent won't help solve either of those problems.
And adding an extra day of custody for defendants who haven't been convicted of anything may not be constitutional.
The court system may be underfunded in Maine, but that is a choice that the Legislature makes. State officials should not be permitted to stand in the way of people's access to their fundamental rights just because the state wants to save a few bucks.
The system allows people to be held against their will for too long already. It's hard to keep a job, maintain a residence or live a healthy, productive life while spending nearly a week in jail. The disruption this policy would cause in people's lives could create a string of problems for them, and for the rest of society.
And how many of us want to live in a state where someone can be arrested and held for so long without being brought to a court? That doesn't sound like American justice.
A better solution would involve the use of technology to get defendants before a judge for arraignment by video, a practice that is already in use in some Maine counties.
The state Supreme Court should reject the extension of the custody rules and find a way to process defendants more quickly.