AUGUSTA – A significant bail reform package has become law, allowing Maine to address inequities in the criminal legal system that erode the presumption of innocence and core constitutional rights for low-income people.
LD 1703 eliminates cash bail for non-violent Class E misdemeanors, the least serious criminal violations, such as drinking in public and criminal trespass. Additionally, bail commissioners, judges and prosecutors will be required to consider a person’s employment, primary caregiving responsibilities and access to medical care when setting bail. After passing 83-57 in the House and 22-13 in the Senate, LD 1703 has become law without a signature from the governor.
“This is an enormous step toward justice and equality before the law,” said bill sponsor, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross. “With this new law, we will begin to dismantle the profoundly unfair practice of punishing people simply because of their poverty, even before they’ve had their day in court.”
The majority of people, up to 80 percent, in Maine jails are held awaiting trial, and the majority of arrests every year are for misdemeanors.
“This law is an important step toward ensuring that no one is denied due process or equal treatment under the law based on how much money they have,” said Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine. “The system of cash bail is not effective at guaranteeing a person’s appearance in court. Instead, it compounds serious wealth and racial inequities in the criminal legal system, and wastes the state’s resources to jail people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.”
Reforming cash bail is important in order to address racial and wealth-based inequities in the criminal legal system. Studies find Black people are more likely to receive higher cash bail than white people for the same offenses, and Black Americans have access to less wealth because of generations of systemic discrimination. People who can’t afford bail are more likely to be sentenced to longer jail or prison time. They are also more likely to take plea deals and plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
A 2015 survey of five jails by the Maine Judicial Branch found the average cash bail for Class E offenses was $722 and the average length of pretrial detention for Class E offenses was about a month (see Appendix C).