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The number of inmates incarcerated in Maine’s county jails is falling as sheriffs, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges work together to release defendants who have nearly completed their sentences or can have their bail reduced.
The coronavirus outbreak and concerns about the inability to impose social distancing practices inside jails has caused those who work in Maine’s criminal justice system to reduce the number of people incarcerated.
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The Maine Department of Corrections is taking similar steps to reduce the state’s prison populations, Commissioner Randall Liberty said Friday. So far, 29 prisoners have been released to Supervised Community Confinement.
Law enforcement officers are doing their part by issuing more summonses rather than placing suspects under arrest and allowing individuals to post bail at a police station rather than taking them to county jails.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce has reduced the jail population in
Portland from 408 to 302 over the past week or so.
“The first group released were those who were in our community corrections program,” Joyce said Friday. “They were going out during the day, working the community and returning at night. All were considered to be low risk for reoffending. We had some others who were within 90 days of completing their sentences who could be released to home confinement.”
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The population at the Penobscot County Jail is down from 235 to 182, which includes 59 inmates who are boarded at other facilities, Sheriff Troy Morton said. That means there are 123 inmates inside the jail, 34 fewer than the 157 it is licensed to house. About 80 defendants are out of the jail on contracts with Maine Pretrial Services.
“While we are taking reasonable steps to reduce our population, we are not going to put the public at risk by releasing inmates charged with violent crimes,” Morton said.
In Somerset County, 52 inmates have been released and are reporting to its Community Corrections Program that allows for monitoring and/or home detention, according to Sheriff Dale Lancaster. The jail is licensed for 234 inmates.
Sheriffs said that when deciding who can be released they take into account whether the inmates have stable housing and support systems in place in the community as well as the nature of their crimes.
“We look at the totality of each case,” Lancaster said. “The balancing act is ensuring public safety and reducing the inmate population because of the coronavirus. It is very important that we protect our staff and inmates. We review those inmates that are classified as low risk and inmates that have served the greater portion of their sentences.”
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While the courts are just dealing with matters considered to be emergencies, such as first appearances by arrestees, applications for protection from abuse and harassment orders and child protective cases, defense attorneys may file motions to lower the bail of incarcerated clients or ask for a client to be sentenced to a time-served sentence when appropriate.
The courts may see more defense attorneys, most of whom are court appointed and paid through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Defense, filing those motions now that rules have been relaxed so they are being paid while the courts are all but shut down.
Under the commission’s rulers, lawyers may not submit bills for work until a case has been resolved. Board members decided Tuesday that attorneys would be paid for work they were assigned 90 or more days ago and for work done on motions to lower bail or resolved cases for their incarcerated clients.
District attorneys also are weighing in who should and should not be released.
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“I have divided the list of everyone in custody in my county jails and distributed it to the prosecutors in my office,” said Maeghan Malone, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties. “I have received back from the prosecutors a description as to why everyone on our caseload is in custody. For those not sentenced, in some instances, this had led to us contracting defense attorneys about amending bail.
“For those sentenced, I have been in frequent contact with the sheriffs,” she continued. “And, not surprisingly, there are many who pose a threat to community safety that we know are a top priority for holding in custody. The number of people in custody at the Kennebec County jail has been over 200 in the recent past and is now at 100 due to these efforts.”
Sheriffs and Liberty said they would continue to try to reduce their populations further during the COVID-19 crisis.
The corrections commissioner said that he expected another 27 adult prisoners would be released to community supervision by April 10. Liberty also said that 17 juveniles have been released from the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and he expected another four would be identified for release on Wednesday.