Augusta – The ACLU of Maine is in Augusta today to urge support for a bill that would reform Maine’s bail system. LD 1421, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (Portland), would eliminate the use of money bail for people arrested for most Class E misdemeanors and would require greater consideration by bail commissioners of how the bail conditions they set affect defendants’ ability to care for their children, maintain employment, and meet their health needs.

“Maine is facing a pretrial incarceration crisis,” said Emma LeBlanc, senior researcher with the ACLU of Maine. “On any given day, the majority of people in Maine jails are pretrial defendants, most of whom have been charged with only misdemeanor offenses. As a result, our jails are overcrowded, families are torn apart, Maine’s economy suffers, and we are not any safer for it.”

The money bail system was originally designed to ensure that people returned to court as their case progressed. Yet according to the ACLU, it has since transformed into a system that holds people in jail awaiting trial based solely on their ability to pay. It disproportionately impacts poor and middle-class households and people of color, who are subject to pretrial incarceration at a higher rate than richer, white arrestees with similar charges and history.

“Maine’s cash bail system has created a two-tiered criminal justice system where defendants with enough means to pay are released, while poor and working-class defendants are stuck behind bars awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay,” said LeBlanc. “It’s a system that punishes people for being poor.”

Studies show that defendants who can’t afford bail are more likely to accept a plea deal and plead guilty to crimes they did not commit so that they can get out of jail faster. And, people who are incarcerated pretrial are shown to get longer sentences because they are more likely to accept an unfair plea deal. Further, cash bail is no more effective at ensuring people show up for their trial than personal recognizance.  

2018 poll by the Charles Koch Institute and the Pretrial Justice Institute found that a majority of Americans favor ending the practice of jailing people who cannot afford money bail before trial in all but “extreme cases.”