FARMINGTON — A Farmington attorney is arguing that it is unconstitutional for a man he’s defending to await trial in a prison instead of a local jail.
Attorney Walter Hanstein is asking a judge to lower the bail of Robert Parker Jr., accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl, from $75,000 cash to personal recognizance — no cash bail with a promise to appear in court — because that’s the only way under the current state law that Parker will be close to his lawyer and his family while awaiting trial.
Parker, 43, of Phillips, is being held in Maine Correctional Center in Windham, 90 miles from his attorney, because the state law that created the consolidated jail system requires that Franklin County inmates be held elsewhere after 72 hours. No other jails were are available to hold him, so he was sent to the prison.
While the district attorney’s office and Hanstein do not agree on what should be the outcome of the particular bail motion, they, along with the sheriff and a legal expert, agree it highlights ongoing problems created by the state law that consolidated the jails in 2009 and reduced three jails, including the Franklin County Jail, to a 72-hour holding center.
Under the consolidated system, Franklin County pays about $600,000 per year to board its inmates held longer than 72 hours in other facilities. Franklin County had sent it inmates to the Somerset County Jail until it stopped taking in boarder inmates earlier this year after a dispute with the state about federal boarder revenue. Since then, Franklin County has been housing its boarder inmates wherever there is extra bed space, including the prison in Windham.
In a county jail, inmates are either awaiting trial or serving a sentence for less than nine months. Those accused of more serious crimes with longer sentences are housed in prison.
Hanstein said it’s outrageous to house someone considered innocent until proven guilty in the same place as convicted felons.
“It’s offensive to put somebody pretrial in a prison. It’s absolutely not appropriate for the state to do this,” he said.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Hanstein said, Parker is guaranteed the right to an attorney and under the 14th Amendment this guarantee is supposed to apply the same to Parker as it does to other inmates from other counties. In other counties, however, inmates have easy access to their attorney at their local jail.
Hanstein said he recognizes that some community members will not feel sorry for an Parker because he is accused of serious crimes, but said it’s small minded to not demand that he be treated the same as inmates in other counties.
Parker is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting the young girl in Phillips and threatening to kill her if she told anyone. He was also charged with harassment after police said he sent sexually explicit text messages to her family about the assaults. Parker was also charged in Franklin County Court with misdemeanors after police accused him of forcing two girls under the age of 15 to smoke about 50 cigarettes each.
“People won’t say ‘Oh an accused sex offender is in prison, that’s so sad.’ People won’t do that,” Hanstein said. “But people in state government should be offended by the notion that we are putting pretrial detainees in a prison with convicted felons.”
Judge Susan Oram gave Hanstein until the end of Monday to submit an argument and supporting case law and he said he hopes to have a ruling by the middle of the week.
Assistant District Attorney Josh Robbins said his office will wait to see what Hanstein submits as a written argument, and then decide if the office will also submit a response to Oram.
Robbins said both county prosecutors and defense attorneys would like to see the jail returned to its former status, but said granting Parker a personal recognizance bail, which is usually reserved for minor offenses, would not be a good solution.
“I don’t think that will solve any of the problems here,” he said. “As the prosecution we would prefer the bail in remain in place and he be held in a local jail.”
Hanstein said he recognizes the judge does not have the power to overturn the state law with this motion, but within the law she can say the constitution requires Parker to be returned to his home.
“What she does have the authority to say is ‘I’m not telling the Department of Corrections what you have to do. I’m just telling the lawyers that if this guy is not housed in Farmington then I’m going to change bail and release him on personal recognizance,’” he said.
Sheriff Scott Nichols said the debate shows the problems that are created consolidated jail system, which he criticized for unnecessarily separates inmates from their families and attorneys when they could be held in a local jail.
Nichols has said his department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on transport cost since the start of the consolidated system. Franklin County deputies traveled 1,056 miles this week transporting inmates between Farmington and out of county jails and Windham prison.
“It’s one of the many issues with this whole situation,” he said. “I’m surprised he’s the only one who’s complained so far,” he said.
Franklin County Jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt said the inmates go wherever there is bed space. He said there are 12 inmates being held in Windham prison as of Friday, but the number frequently changes as cases are dispensed with and arrests are made.
Jim Burke, professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law, said he is familiar with the ongoing dispute between Franklin County and the unified jail system, and though he has not reviewed Hanstein’s specific motion, he said there is merit to the argument that being held out of county violates Franklin County inmates constitutional rights.
Burke said the judge has a difficult case to decide whether to agree Parker needs released because of his right of reasonable access to an attorney or to decide the public safety is compromised if a high risk offender is released on a no-cash bail. However, he said whatever decision the judge makes will likely not significantly affect the ongoing debate surrounding the jails.
“I don’t think realistically this will be a case where the judge orders a solution to the huge problem of jails and funding and who’s going to hold who where at who’s expense,” he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252