October 4, 2013

Maine bail system needs overhaul, expert tells state panel

Current system favors those with money, rather than considering danger they pose, says Elizabeth Simoni, executive director for Maine Pretrial Services

By Kaitlin Schroeder kschroeder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Members of a commission looking for solutions to the financial crisis in the state's jail system were asked today to rethink how bail works.

Elizabeth Simoni, executive director for 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 this morning to take ideas from the public on ways to address the 75 percent funding shortfall the unified jail system is facing.

The 15-member commission 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 out 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 dispensed with.

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

Several members of the board agreed 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 prisoners in the Kennebec County jail is about $2 million a year, while the county pays $130,000 for Pretrial Services, according to commission member Capt. Marsha Alexander, Kennebec County jail administrator.

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

Simoni said her organization does not advocate for risky inmates to be released, but said the organization's research along with other reports show 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 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, the remaining jails in the system that don't use the service could benefit from contracting with the service.

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

Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy also addressed the commission, and recommended that the unified jail system be wrote off as a mistake and be 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 Maine State Board of Corrections and to negotiate a contract to resume sending prisoners to Somerset County if the state jail financial crisis worsens.

If the study commission does not reach a 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 – 861-9252
kschroeder@mainetoday.com

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