The chief justice of Maine’s Judicial Branch announced a new initiative Tuesday to reduce the number of people who are held in jail while awaiting trial but do not pose a flight risk or a danger to the public.

In her annual State of the Judiciary speech in Augusta, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley outlined the goals of the Task Force on Pretrial Judicial Reform to find less costly and more effective means than incarceration to handle defendants who owe fines, whose charges do not merit a jail sentence or who are too poor to post bail.

“Put bluntly, without better upfront assessments, pretrial detention may make less dangerous people more dangerous, and we may be missing the need to detain people who currently present a serious threat of violence,” Saufley said in her address in the House chamber of the State House.

Saufley said the initiative has received bipartisan support from House and Senate leadership. She said the effort also has support from Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.

“We know that more than 60 percent of the people held in county jails are in pretrial status,” she said. “Defendants who present a risk of flight or violence need the attention and resources of the jails. But many others could be better addressed with the focused attention of less-costly resources.”

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said the governor is supportive of Saufley’s initiative pretrial jail reform.


“We need to do more,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the initiative is timely given LePage’s push to shift oversight of the jails from the state back to the counties. He has refused to allocate state money to the jails until the system is overhauled.

“Obviously we’re dealing with the county jail costs right now,” Bennett said. “This discussion needs to be had. We need to find ways to reduce costs, and the governor is all in.”

Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said she agrees with the chief justice’s assessment.

“We should lock up fewer people who don’t need to be behind bars,” Beyea said. “We are really excited about the broad coalition of people coming together to talk about this criminal justice reform and the realization that we are locking up too many people for too long.”

A bill proposed by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, that is still being drafted, would eliminate cash bail and replace it with a new system that would allow low-risk individuals to be released until their criminal charges are resolved.


But not everyone is convinced. Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who is director of the Maine Prosecutor’s Association, said jails were never designed to be anything but temporary holding facilities.

Anderson said she first learned of Saufley’s plan last week when the chief justice asked her to join the task force.

“When Chief Justice Saufley called me to be on the task force, I said, ‘great, then maybe I’ll find out what the problem is,'” Anderson said. “I don’t think there’s a problem in Cumberland County. I think the people who are sitting in pretrial custody in Cumberland County need to be there.”

Anderson questioned how many of the 60 percent of jail inmates cited by Saufley were awaiting an initial court appearance. She also questioned what penalty would exist for defendants who fail to pay fines or violate bail conditions if jail were not an option.

“This message about too many people in pretrial custody, that is a message that really resounds with the Legislature,” Anderson said. “From where I’m sitting, I’m seeing people not honoring their obligations and being held accountable for that.”

Saufley in her address also announced plans to “begin digital upgrade to create eFiling” this year for the state judicial system, which is now entirely reliant on paper filings. She said that plan would need the support of the Legislature and governor.


Those changes come on the heels of other projects, such as the completion of construction to consolidate courts in Kennebec County. The Capital Judicial Center in Augusta will open next week, with a grand opening set for May 1.

Consolidation of criminal proceedings in district and superior courts into a single system will go into effect July 1. That project, called the Unified Criminal Docket, launched as a pilot in Cumberland County in 2009, followed by Penobscot County in 2011, and is intended to speed the judicial process and reduce clerk work.

Saufley also asked lawmakers to approve funding for more judges. The caseload now is so heavy that the six sitting justices on the Supreme Judicial Court have had to defer their own caseloads to assist with trial court cases.

LePage’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years calls for an 11.4 percent increase in spending for the judicial branch, from $140.1 million in the current two-year cycle to $156.1 million in the cycle that begins July 1.

Bennett said the proposed increase includes funding for four new judges, funding for the new Capital Judicial Center and debt service for past projects.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.