Kari Morissette of the Church of the Safe Injection stands in Portland's Deering Oaks Park on Tuesday where she watched a woman seeking help for substance use disorder arrested for criminal trespassing last summer. Morissette would like to see Maine's cash bail system for such misdemeanor crimes eliminated. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Kari Morissette has learned a lot about the obstacles that vulnerable people face in getting back on track.

Before she came back to Maine and got sober in 2019, Morissette, a 32-year-old Rumford native, battled homelessness and substance use disorder in Florida. There, it seemed she was constantly getting nabbed for small offenses and trying to pool her resources to meet bail.

“I’ve been arrested for more misdemeanors than I can count,” Morissette said.

These days, Morissette runs the Church of Safe Injection, a Maine-based organization that provides support for people struggling with addiction. The organization is seeking certification from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to run a syringe-service program that supplies clean needles for people who use drugs.

As the Maine Legislature prepares to take up a bill that would eliminate cash bail for those crimes, Morissette has felt the need to speak up. Many of those charged with Class E misdemeanor crimes are “being punished for having mental illness or substance use disorder,” she said, by having to come up with bail they can’t afford, making it harder to escape the social maladies with which they’re struggling.

Many of those charged with Class E misdemeanors are an “automatic conviction,” Morissette said. Without bail money or adequate resources to get it, they are more likely to plead guilty if it lets them out of jail more quickly. That’s especially true if an arrestee suffers from substance use disorder because overnight detention means going through withdrawal while in confinement.

“How are you going to arrest somebody for criminal trespass that doesn’t have a home or anywhere to go?” Morissette said.

If passed, the bill, LD 1703, would remove the ability of judges and bail commissioners to impose a money bail condition for most people charged with a Class E crime, the least severe misdemeanor charge. The bill carves out exceptions for certain crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence and the failure to appear in court, and wouldn’t affect bail imposed for more severe charges.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, called the practice of cash bail for small crimes “one of the most broken parts of our legal system.”

“Poorer Mainers and people of color often can’t afford to come up with money for bail, leaving them stuck in jail awaiting trial for weeks or months. Meanwhile, wealthy people accused of the same crime can buy their freedom and return home,” Talbot Ross said in her testimony before the Judiciary Committee on May 21. “This is not what our Constitution promises, and it is not what justice should look like.”

Most cash bails for Class E misdemeanor crimes in Maine are set at $500, according to a 2015 study by a Maine task force on pretrial justice issues. Those charged with Class E crimes spend an average of 31.65 days in county jail at the cost to the state of “over $100 per day,” according to the study.

Reducing pretrial bail for small crimes has long been a goal of civil rights organizations. Meagan Sway, policy director of the ACLU of Maine, said it perpetuates a system where people are incarcerated “because of their poverty.”

“It has created a two-tiered system of justice where wealthy people pay bail and are released, while poor and working-class people are stuck behind bars awaiting trial just because they can’t afford bail,” Sway said.

Maine law enforcement are opposed to the bill as written, but are “willing to work with the bill’s sponsor,” Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss said.

Maj. William Ross of the Maine State Police said the bill would have “a detrimental impact on public safety and officer safety leading to repeat calls for services without the ability to impose bail for the offender.” According to the bill, judicial officers would still be able to set bail conditions — just not cash bail.

Removing bail would give law enforcement officers “less discretion with the ability to issue a summons in lieu of an arrest,” Ross said, and make it difficult for them to ensure that arrestees would make their trial dates.

Walter McKee with the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers spoke in favor of the bill, saying it “would make a real impact on people accused of crimes being stuck in jail for the simple reason that they could not come up with hundreds — and sometimes many thousands — of dollars in bail money.”

“Eliminating what have been standard conditions of so many bail bonds is a big change here,” McKee said. “You’re presumed innocent until proven guilty in our country and forcing a defendant to post even a small amount of bail turns that on its head.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the current operations of the Church of Safe Injection.