FARMINGTON — A Maine District Court judge on Thursday ruled against a motion to release or transfer an inmate from a prison while he awaited trial, highlighting contentious questions about the state’s consolidated county jail system and defendants’ rights to be near their attorneys.
Farmington attorney Walter Hanstein argued in his motion that it is unconstitutional for a man he’s defending to await trial in a distant prison an hour and a half from his attorney, instead of a local jail when he hasn’t been convicted of a crime.
Hanstein asked Judge Susan Oram 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 state law that Parker would be close to his lawyer and his family while awaiting trial.
In 2009, the state consolidated jail system reduced the Franklin County jail to a holding facility and requires the county pay about $600,000 per year to board out inmates held longer than 72 hours. Franklin County inmates are held wherever there is extra bed space, including the prison in Windham, where Parker and 13 other boarders are held.
Unlike a county jail, where inmates are either awaiting trial or serving a sentence for less than nine months, those in Windham are convicted of more serious crimes with longer sentences.
Franklin County officials have expressed repeated frustration about the system, which they said wastes county time and money by forcing them to board inmates out of county when they have a largely vacant jail facility down the road from the courthouse.
Oram wrote in her ruling that she could neither order Parker be housed in a local jail nor rule that the constitution requires he be released on a no-cash bail in order to be close to his attorney.
Oram said for her to consider ordering Parker be held in a closer facility, she would need to have input from other affected parties like the Department of Corrections and from jail officials from Franklin and Somerset counties.
She said the parties have the right to be heard on the issue since a decision could affect for not only Parker but other detainees throughout the system.
“A motion to amend bail is not the proper way to bring defendant’s request for transfer to Franklin County or Somerset County before the court,” she wrote.
Oram wrote that she denied releasing Parker on a no-cash bail because Hanstein did not provide enough evidence to prove the distance violates Parker’s constitutional right to access an attorney.
She said he proved that Hanstein himself has a difficult time traveling to Windham to represent Parker, but he did not prove that every attorney would have a difficult time representing Parker.
“On this limited record, no competent evidence suggests defendant’s placement burdens his ability to access the help of all the qualified attorneys available to him,” she wrote.
The district attorney did not file a memorandum to the judge in response to Hanstein.
Hanstein said he is researching whether it would be worthwhile to appeal the decision in federal court.
“It’s a pretty big step … but it disturbs me enough that I’m considering seeing if there is a remedy in federal court,” he said.
Hanstein tried for a second time Thursday to amend bail of a different defendant, Roy Gordon, also held in Windham prison.
He said Gordon, who pleaded guilty to a class C drug charge and is awaiting sentencing without bail, should be released until sentencing on a contract with Maine Pretrial Services, a nonprofit that monitors defendants released from jail.
Justice Michaela Murphy denied his motion, but said she acknowledges the burden created by the system and said she would be willing to see if there was any small, informal ways to alleviate the burden created by the distance between Hanstein and his defendants held out of county.
“I don’t think there is anyone in this courtroom that thinks things are working the way they are supposed to in Franklin County,” Murphy said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 firstname.lastname@example.org