Cash bail can be as little as $50 or $100. Still, it’s costing us a fortune.

When someone who is charged but not yet convicted of a crime is held in jail, it is almost always because that person cannot afford the bail, however low, placed on the crime with which that person has been charged, however minor.

Once the exception among Maine’s incarcerated population, these people are now the majority. Before the mid-1990s, only about 40 percent of the state’s county jail inmates were there awaiting trial. By 2007, however, more than 60 percent of people held in county jails were pretrial. Now, according to the ACLU of Maine, it is as high as 80 percent in some counties.

It was the rise in pretrial detention that drove the surge in Maine’s jail population during that time, causing problems with jail costs that county officials, sheriffs and state lawmakers have yet to find an answer for.

In just one example, Penobscot County, where the cost of boarding elsewhere inmates who cannot fit in its overcrowded jail is expected to soon reach $1 million a year, has been struggling with plans to build a new jail because of criticism over its size and cost.

Aside from all the tax dollars spent on pretrial detention, there is an immense personal cost. Incarceration, even for a relatively short time, can mean the loss of employment, housing or child custody. It is also undeniably traumatic.

And if you’re in jail awaiting trial, then you’re subjected to all those things without being convicted.

In fact, that’s just one way the bail system runs counter to American ideals. Just as everyone has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, we all too should have access to a fair and equitable justice system.

Now, we have one system for people who can afford bail – one that ends with that person home in bed not long after an arrest – and another, much worse one for everyone else, one that includes days, weeks, even months in jail before their case is adjudicated.

Lawmakers can help correct this injustice. L.D. 1421 would drop cash bail for the most minor crimes, such as littering, driving on a suspended license or petty theft. The bill would also require courts to consider a defendant’s health and personal needs before setting bail, and would make it more difficult to refuse to release someone on personal recognizance.

The bill, supported by many prosecutors, won’t make all the problems with Maine’s pretrial system go away. But it certainly would push things in the right direction.

There is no evidence that bail in these cases makes Maine safer, or helps in any way to ensure justice. It only raises costs, both for taxpayers and for thousands of individual Mainers, while perpetuating an unbalanced justice system.


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