AUGUSTA — Being district attorney for two counties doesn’t mean your hairdresser will take your check.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, was at her hairdresser’s one day when she was told they wouldn’t take her check because they’d had so many checks returned without payment.

That got her thinking about a program she may institute that’s modeled after a similar bad check program begun by Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson in 2004, Maloney told attendees at a Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Business Insiders’ Breakfast Wednesday.

The program uses a private company to assist businesses that register for the service by finding bad check writers and notifying them they need to pay the money they owe the business or face prosecution by the state.

“That’s a real burden on small businesses,” Maloney said of the cost and hassle of dealing with bad checks. “If they don’t take checks, they can only take cash or credit cards, and the credit cards take 3 percent off the top.”

Maloney said the program would operate with no cost to the businesses or the state. The private company involved would make its profit by charging a fee to the bad-check writer.

If the check-writer complies with the program by paying the amount owed to the business, plus an administrative fee, and taking an educational course meant to discourage them from writing more bad checks in the future, a criminal case is never initiated.

However, if they don’t pay up, the company would forward the case to Maloney’s office for prosecution.

“If a check comes back, you send it to the company and they deal with the defendant,” Maloney told about 56 people, primarily business owners and managers, at the session in Augusta. “If the defendant takes the class and makes 100 percent restitution, I never see the case. They pay what is owed and don’t have a criminal conviction.”

Maloney said Anderson told her the program has been successful. Maloney said she wants to hear from businesses, police and others in central Maine to see if they’d be interested in such a program here. If the reaction to the idea is positive, she said, it could be put in place in Kennebec and Somerset counties fairly quickly.

Business owners at the gathering reacted positively to the idea.

One business owner asked how to distinguish between someone who is intentionally writing a bad check knowing they don’t have the money to cover it from someone who has just fallen on hard times who didn’t realize they didn’t have the money in their account to cover a check they wrote.

Maloney responded that the proposed system, which would only be open to first-time offenders, wouldn’t distinguish between the two. If the check-writer complies with the program, they wouldn’t get a criminal conviction anyway.

She said the need to prove intent to successfully prosecute writing bad checks as a criminal offense makes it a hard crime to prosecute.

And she noted even if there is a conviction, and the bad check-writer is required to make restitution to pay back the amount owed, it can take years, even decades, for the money to be paid back.

Maloney described the program as part of wider efforts to be “smart on crime.”

She said that means seeking the longest jail sentences possible for criminal offenders considered high risk, which she said includes an increasing number of gang members dealing drugs in the two counties, but being willing to consider alternative sentencing for some medium and low risk offenders.

She cited, as examples, three programs begun in the last one-and-a-half years. They include an operating under the influence diversion program for first-time offenders. If offenders meet what she described as difficult requirements, including 100 hours of community service or paying $1,000 to a community non-profit group and consenting to testing to confirm they remain alcohol free for a year, they would be convicted of driving to endanger instead of OUI. Maloney said both are considered serious crimes, but an OUI conviction to many people can mean they’d lose their job.

Maloney also cited a program in which some drug offenders can receive deferred disposition and avoid jail time if they submit to regular drug testing, take counseling and meet regularly with authorities.

And she described a restorative justice program in which victims meet with authorities and with the perpetrator of crimes against them so they can describe how they were impacted by the crimes. The perpetrators have a chance to apologize, and the visit is overseen by a trained mediator. She said victims can also be involved in determining the sentence for defendants.

“The most famous use (of the restorative justice program) was with Christopher Knight, the so-called North Pond Hermit,” Maloney said. “He sat down and met with these people he’d been burglarizing over the years. He talked to them and apologized.”

Peter Thompson, CEO and president of the chamber, asked Maloney if she had anything to do with GQ magazine securing interviews with the reclusive Knight. Maloney said she did not.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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