Coiled barbed wire on top of fences at the Penobscot County Jail on May 12, 2020.

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In late December, a committee charged with finding ways to reduce the number of unconvicted people held in Maine jails, which had soared since the mid-1990s, published a set of recommendations for the Maine Legislature to review this spring. The report marked at least the fourth time in 15 years that the state had studied the growth of Maine’s jail population without meaningfully reversing the costly trend.

Then, in the course of seven weeks, the daily population of Maine’s 15 county jails fell by 40 percent. It wasn’t the Legislature stepping in, but a highly contagious virus that posed a particular threat to congregant living settings such as cramped jails, spurring police to arrest fewer people and criminal justice officials to release more prisoners who didn’t pose a risk to the public.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

As of March 6, a week before the coronavirus officially appeared in Maine, there were 1,658 people in county jails. By April 23, there were fewer than 1,000. Since then, the average statewide total has since hovered there, creeping back above 1,000 before dropping to a new low, 973, last week, according to the Maine Department of Corrections, which tracks the data weekly.

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The decline is an example of how the pandemic has disrupted major institutions such as the criminal justice system. In this case, the virus forced it to collectively tackle a problem and make dramatic changes for the first time in decades, albeit without the planning and preparation the task force envisioned.

Some wonder if the downward trend is sustainable even after the state of emergency has passed. In Penobscot County, home to the state’s most routinely overcrowded jail, officials have begun talking about how the pandemic could alter plans for a new, bigger facility.

“I think it is encouraging that we finally have the entire justice system’s attention on the jail, and to see the results is impressive,” Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci said during a meeting on April 14. “Having daily court appearances and more discretion [by police] officers to get the population down to what you have is something significant.”

The Penobscot County Jail routinely exceeded its rated capacity of 157 inmates, forcing the county to house dozens of people elsewhere at a cost of nearly $1 million a year. That morning, however, there were 111 inmates at the jail and 43 inmates boarded at other facilities.

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The commissioners had proposed building a larger jail, but, during a meeting Tuesday morning, Baldacci said they may have to revisit the plan if the jail sees a long-term reduction in inmates.

“At this point, there’s nothing definitive. We need to recognize there’s been quite a change,” he said.

The pandemic has upended so much of daily life that many are only just grasping the reality of the moment, much less the implications. Right now, criminal justice officials said they are largely focused on keeping people safe from the virus and wary of speculating about the future.

“I think it’s too early to try to predict what impact this crisis will have in the long term,” said Andrew Robinson, district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, and president of the Maine Prosecutors Association.

Others are more willing to draw conclusions from the past two months, believing the changes that brought down the jail population show how Maine kept too many people in jail in the first place.

“Even in normal times, unnecessary arrest and pretrial incarceration impose massive harms on people in our community, especially on people who are poor, people of color and people with disabilities,” said Emma Bond, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“As the virus continues to take a toll on our economy, we must examine the best return on our taxpayer dollars, both now and after the pandemic has passed. Spending more money on housing and health care in our communities, and less on jails and prisons, is the only way to ensure healthy and safe communities,” she said.

Officials have largely reduced the statewide jail population through a few means: Police have been arresting fewer people and issuing more summonses; the courts have increased the number of days they can set bail for newly arrested defendants; and district attorneys and defense lawyers are reviewing which people can safely await trial in the community without jeopardizing public safety.

Many of these practices mirror recommendations by the Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force, the committee that studied the issue last year.

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“What we’ve been calling for has happened. And if it was done in a planned, thoughtful way, it could be sustained and be lasting and save resources,” said Doug Dunbar of Hermon, who belongs to a group that has advocated against the proposed expansion of the Penobscot County Jail, and spent four months there as an inmate in 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the committee recommended that the criminal justice system would need to do more than just lower incarceration rates for the trend to continue. For instance, it recommended growing programs that supervise people awaiting trial in the community and providing law enforcement with alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs and crisis centers. But the pandemic didn’t give officials time to build up those services.

Without them, law enforcement officers such as Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said it’s hard to believe the state will be able to maintain the lower rates of arrest that Maine has seen in recent months.

Crime hasn’t stopped just because jail counts are down, he said, and local police chiefs are starting to grow frustrated with people who have continued to commit the same minor offenses, seemingly because they’re no longer afraid of going to jail.

Already in more counties with urban centers, such as Penobscot and Cumberland counties, arrests have ticked back up slightly, said Elizabeth Simoni, the executive director of Maine Pretrial Services, which supervises defendants in the community.

“They’re not earth-shattering crimes, but they affect businesses and stores,” Morton said.

“If COVID were gone tomorrow, could we still do this? I don’t know,” he went on. “But I don’t think it’s fair to say that COVID is going away tomorrow.”

Watch: How Bangor emergency crews are adapting to the pandemic

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.