Maine must cut down on the number of nonviolent offenders who are jailed while awaiting trial to reduce rising jail costs, the state’s chief justice said Tuesday.

During her annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley announced that a new task force will study the issue and make recommendations for lawmakers to consider next session. The group will be led by Justice Robert Mullen and include lawmakers, representatives from Attorney Janet Mills’ office, law enforcement officials and others.

“It is time for us to take on this challenge,” Saufley, who became the first female chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2001, said before a joint session of the Democrat-led House and Republican-controlled Senate.

More than 60 percent of inmates in county jails are awaiting trail, but many don’t pose a risk to the public, she said. Many are held because they didn’t appear in court to pay a fine or are waiting for space to open up in a treatment facility, she said.

Saufley said improving risk assessments and placing nonviolent offenders into community programs are some of the ways to address the issue.

She said putting low-risk offenders behind bars before trial has been shown to increase the risk that someone will repeat criminal behavior. The opposite is true for high-risk offenders, she said.

“Put bluntly, without better up-front assessments, pretrial detention may make dangerous people more dangerous, and we may be missing the need to detain people who currently present a serious threat for violence,” she said.

Saufley also urged the Legislature to support funding for more judge positions in Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, which she said “could not come at a better time.”

She said the state is “ turning a corner” after years of underfunding that had caused many courts to fall into disrepair and create backlogs in the criminal justice system.

Among several changes she highlighted is that the courts will begin this year to move to an electronic filing system after lawmakers and the governor approved a $15 million bond for the effort last session.

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