AUGUSTA — Three new Kennebec County initiatives seek to reduce the amount of time poor or mentally ill people spend in custody in the criminal justice system before they’re convicted of a crime and use medication-assisted treatment to help inmates addicted to drugs escape their addictions.

Two of the initiatives, switching to a risk-assessment based bail system and using medication to help inmates fight drug addiction in jail, would be the first of their kind in Maine, according to Maeghan Maloney, district attorney of Kennebec and Somerset counties.

The reforms, announced by county officials Thursday at the Capital Judicial Center, would replace the current cash-based bail system, which officials said can keep poor people accused of a crime in jail awaiting trial for longer than their sentence would be if they’re found guilty, with a new bail system based upon an assessment of their risk of reoffending or not showing up for court and only requiring cash bail for those deemed to be a high risk.

They also have created a new “mental health docket” once a month in court, intended to reduce the amount of time people with mental illness who are accused of crimes and are arrested spend stuck in the system waiting for an assessment of whether they are mentally competent, and speed the pace of them being connected to services that can help them.

And a new medicated-assistance treatment program, under the watch of clinicians, would administer Suboxone to Kennebec County jail inmates addicted to drugs who agree to enter the addiction treatment program and continue in it for a year after their release from jail.

The new bail system is intended to result in only people deemed to be the highest risk of either committing a crime while released or not showing up for their court proceedings having to pay cash bail.

It would use an evidence-based risk assessment system already in use by Maine Pretrial Services to determine each accused suspect’s risk of either committing a crime or not showing up for court if the suspect is released. Low-risk suspects would be released without posting any bail. Medium-risk suspects would be released with no cash bail if they agree to be monitored by Pretrial Services.

Maloney said the intent is to allow most people to await their trials outside jail.

Maine Pretrial Director Elizabeth Simoni talks at a news conference Thursday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta about criminal justice changes being made in Kennebec County. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Elizabeth Simoni, director of Maine Pretrial Services, said the organization has used a risk-based assessment system for 10 years and has validated that it has a high success rate. She said that last year in Kennebec County, of 391 people arrested and released pending trial, 22 of them were re-arrested for committing a crime while released, which would be a 94.37 percent success rate; and three failed to appear in court, a 99 percent success rate.

Maloney said the nature of the crime, and the wishes of the victim, are part of the assessment process and are, and still will be, considered while deciding whether to release suspects.

Walter McKee, a local defense attorney and former head of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the bail reform is welcome and would help equalize a criminal justice system that, with cash bail, previously has kept poor people in jail awaiting trial for the same offense a person with more money would simply pay cash bail for and be released.

“All too often over the past many years, defendants have sat in jail because they couldn’t make bail,” McKee said. “They could be in on a charge of criminal trespass or disorderly conduct, and because their bail was set at $500 or even $100, because they didn’t have any money they couldn’t get out of jail. So oftentimes they sit in jail 10, 15 or 30 days on a crime that would never rate a jail sentence like that for the sole reason they just couldn’t afford to get out.  It’s huge because it shouldn’t just be the people with money who get out of jail before their trial. It should be everybody, especially those who are at a very low risk of failure to appear or going out and committing new crimes.”

The new, first-in-Maine in-jail medication assisted treatment program would administer Suboxone to jail inmates addicted to drugs if they agree to abide by the program’s requirements, including that, once released from jail, probably as a condition of probation, they would undergo treatment and counseling and submit to drug testing and live in a sober house run by the program, for a year after their release.

This building at 93 Western Ave. in Augusta, seen Thursday, was bought recently by ENSO Recovery. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Sheriff Ken Mason said the program is in response to the opiate addiction problem that has swept across Maine and other parts of the United States. It will be overseen by ENSO Recovery, which operates outpatient opioid addiction programs in Westbrook and Sanford and two recovery residences in Sanford, and which bought a property at 93 Western Ave. in Augusta and plans to buy another in Augusta to use as recovery houses for inmates in the program when they are released from jail.

Timothy Cheney, principal at ENSO Recovery, said the organization has federal grant funding to provide inmates with addiction treatment for a year after their release.

Maloney said the recidivism rate for inmates who undergo treatment for drug addiction is less than half that of such inmates who don’t undergo treatment.

Inmates in the program would be in a separate pod at the Kennebec County jail from other inmates, where a doctor administering the program will have an office to help prevent any medication being obtained by other inmates.

A third initiative, which is already underway, created a monthly “mental health docket” the second of its kind in Maine, after Cumberland County’s.

Justice Michaela Murphy said mentally ill suspects can get caught in the system after they are arrested, because of the length of time it can take to have a competency evaluation performed, a problem worsened by the lack of available beds for people with mental illness at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and elsewhere.

She said the problem is severe in Kennebec County because the county, which has only 10 percent of the state’s population, has 20 percent of defendants in Maine whose mental illnesses are so acute they are found not competent to stand trial and 30 percent of defendants statewide who were found not criminally responsible for committing a crime. Many of them, she said, end up in jail — which is not set up to treat mental illness — or in hospital emergency rooms, because of a lack of treatment beds.

She said often people with mental illness who are homeless end up getting arrested for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct, because they live on the streets.

If the mental competence of a suspect is in question, that suspect must undergo an evaluation before the criminal case can move forward. Murphy said that means, for many of them, having to stay in jail for weeks at a time waiting for an evaluation, or for their case to be dismissed. If they are found not competent, they can be held at Riverview for up to six months to see if their condition improves so they can return to the criminal justice system.

“What this means, if two people are charged with a simple assault, and one has serious mental illness and one does not, the person without mental illness can be given  a fine or short jail stint, but a person with serious mental illness can lose their liberty for a significant amount of time,” Murphy said.

To address that problem, once a month all defendants with pending competency evaluations are brought into court to try to expedite their cases. Murphy said that can include their cases being dismissed, when appropriate, or programs being found to help them if they are deemed unlikely to be found competent to stand trial. Murphy said mental health professionals including Riverview staff members attend the court sessions, and it helps to have the various entities involved together in court to work on solutions together.

 

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