Earlier this month, Gov. LePage signed LD 1639, “An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Task Force,” into law. The ACLU of Maine supported the bill, which will improve Maine’s pretrial system by making reforms to the bail system and the imposition of fines on indigent defendants. 

As I wrote before, poor people should never be locked up for being unable to pay their legal debts. Putting someone in jail for failure to pay a fine creates a two-tiered justice system where poor people are punished more harshly than people who can afford to pay their fines. Doing so is unconstitutional and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, yet several states – including Maine – still rely on this system of de facto debtors’ prisons. This new law is a step toward fixing that.

The new law implements the recommendations of Maine’s Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force, which was convened last year by Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley with the support of Gov. LePage and bipartisan legislative leadership. I was honored to serve on the Task Force along with members of law enforcement, jail personnel and experts on the pretrial system. Together, we studied Maine’s pretrial system with a goal of making recommendations to lessen the human and financial cost of keeping so many people in jail who don’t need to be there.

According to the Muskie School of Public Policy’s Crime and Justice Databook, the average daily population of county jails has skyrocketed in the last decade, leading to overcrowding and ballooning budgets. This is largely due to an increase in the number of people being held pending trial – pretrial detainees now make up two-thirds of Maine's jail population. The Pretrial Task Force recommended changes to two systems, fines and bail, that have led to an increase in this population.

In 2005, the Maine Legislature began making many fines for criminal offenses unwaivable, even when an individual can prove he or she is unable to pay, largely in an effort to fill budget gaps. Under the current system, failure to pay a fine for even a minor crime results in a warrant for the individual’s arrest. Each year, thousands of Mainers are booked into jail solely for failure to pay fines – usually costing taxpayers more to jail them than was originally owed. Jailing people for failure to pay comes with other hardships as well; they face mounting fines and fees and lose their license and often their job. 

Much like fines, a 2011 report by the Maine Center for Public Reporting revealed that decisions about cash bail amounts – usually made by bail commissioners, who have no formal training or certification – often neglect to take into account a person’s ability to pay. As a result, each day hundreds of Mainers who have not been convicted of any crime stay locked up not because they are a flight risk or a threat to community safety, but because they can’t afford bail. 

Among the recommendations in LD 1639 are allowing courts to waive mandatory fines in some circumstances, and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of bail commissioners. In addition to statute changes, the Task Force recommended additional in-depth study of ongoing concerns, and increased training for bail commissioners, law enforcement, judges, attorneys and jail staff. The ACLU of Maine supports those recommendations and urges continued improvements to Maine’s pretrial system.

We believe this law represents bipartisan agreement that our justice system should be more just. Of course, there are still areas in need of improvement, and we look forward to working with the Legislature to keep reducing Maine's reliance on incarceration.