Remote participants are seen on screens as Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy presides at a court session Friday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

The aim of the criminal justice system is to enforce rules of society and balance the need for order with people’s constitutional rights. But none of that matters to the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 50,000 people and infected nearly 1 million in the United States, prompting states to order people to stay at home and businesses to close.

It has nearly shut down courthouses, including those in central Maine, with trials, grand juries or most other court proceedings on hold until at least mid-May.

While the measures were made to protect people, they have left some accused of a crime unable to have their day in court and their cases hanging over their heads.

In some cases, if people cannot make or have not been offered bail, they could be languishing in jail even though they have not been convicted of a crime.

“It has been very frustrating for so many of my clients who really want to have their day in court,” said Augusta defense lawyer Walter McKee, who said he currently had no clients in jail because they had all made bail. “Some clients are set to have their cases dismissed by agreement, but we can’t even get those court dates set.”

McKee acknowledged the constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial must be balanced with the need to protect the public during the pandemic.

“Constitutional issues certainly arise whenever there are delays in criminal cases,” McKee said. “But at the same time, courts have ruled consistently that in extraordinary circumstances — and I think we all can agree that’s what we have here — any constitutional rights to a speedy trial and the like are far outweighed by the public safety risks in a global pandemic.”

Last week, a coalition of two dozen advocates, social services providers and other groups wrote a letter to Gov. Janet Mills, district attorneys, the state Department of Corrections and Maine sheriffs urging them to release from jails or prisons prisoners who do not pose risks to society.

Members of the coalition said there are sure to be coronavirus outbreaks at jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible. They encouraged officials to take steps to ensure the safety of prisoners and correctional officers.

“Failure to take immediate and meaningful action risks imposing a death sentence for hundreds of incarcerated people in Maine, as well as corrections officers and their family members and the broader community,” reads the letter, which was endorsed by about two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Health Equity Alliance, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Maine Family Planning and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Group members noted an infection at a jail or prison could spread to corrections officers and, when they go home, to their families and communities.

Members of the group held in-vehicle vigils Friday outside the Kennebec County jail in Augusta and Penobscot County jail in Bangor.

Two of the eight vehicles participating Friday in a “Vehicle Vigils in Solidarity with Incarcerated Mainers” are parked on State Street in front of Kennebec County jail in Augusta.

The Release Our Loved Ones vigil drew at least eight vehicles carrying participants to Augusta, some of whom held signs expressing support for the inmates inside the jail.

Courtney Allen, an organizer of the vigil, said it was part of a week of related activities and advocacy to demonstrate their commitment to do what they can to help protect the health of inmates, many of whom are Mainers with families or others who are worried about them.

“We know social distancing is not possible when you’re incarcerated,” Allen said. “Sometimes, there are eight people to a room.”

Central Maine officials said they have taken steps in response to concerns about the coronavirus, including setting lower bail amounts for suspects in jail awaiting trial, holding some arraignments by courtroom video conferencing, resolving some cases that result in suspects being released from jail, releasing some prisoners deemed not to pose a risk to the public and not arresting certain people if they are not considered threats to public safety.

“We are starting to have more court hearings, which is good, because we have a lot of cases that do need hearing,” said Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties. “It is frustrating. I understand why people would want their cases resolved, but it’s not allowed right now.”

Maloney commended Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason and Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster for working to see that inmates who can be freed safely are released from jails.

Allen and Whitney Parrish, the latter the director of advocacy and communications for the Health Equity Alliance and a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said Maine’s sheriffs have done a good job releasing prisoners who do not pose risks to society. But, they said, state Department of Corrections officials need do more to help reduce the possible spread of COVID-19.

Allen said county jail populations are down about 36% due to low-risk inmates being released as they neared the end of their sentences.

Mason said the Kennebec County jail, before coronavirus prevention measures were taken, typically had between 155 and 165 inmates. Now, he said, it has a daily population of between 85 and 95 inmates.

Mason said the jail released about 30 inmates about a month ago who were nearing the end of their sentences. He said the screening process involved looking at each inmate’s crimes to determine whether the inmate posed a danger to the public. Inmates who were released early must check in with the jail and meet other conditions to remain free.

Mason said he knew of two former inmates released early who reoffended, but only by violating conditions of their release, not by committing new crimes. Details of those two former inmates were not available Monday.

Parrish said it is inevitable there will be a COVID-19 outbreak at correctional facilities, citing the spread of coronavirus in long-term health care facilities as demonstrative of the potential for the spread in congregate settings.

Mason said officials do not know of any coronavirus cases in an inmate or worker so far at Kennebec County jail. He said all staff members are screened by having their temperatures taken before they enter the facility. Other precautions include having the medical staff check new inmates as they arrive, and cleaning and disinfecting the facility often. In addition, Mason said, all corrections officers are issued protective masks, although their use is optional.

After a defendant spoke from the podium, Judicial Marshal Louise Brillant wipes it down with disinfectant Friday during a court session at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

While prosecutors have generally been more willing to set more easily attainable bail amounts for people held while awaiting trials, Maloney noted there are suspects accused of violent crimes who are considered a risk to society.

She said those suspects are not likely to have their bails reduced and will remain jailed, despite not having been convicted of a crime, until their cases are resolved.

“You can’t release every person,” Maloney said. “Some are in custody by necessity. They’re generally facing felonies, and many committed class A and B violent felonies. I’ll advocate for the safety of the community every single day.”

She said most employees at the district attorney’s office are working from home, although a rotating “skeleton crew” of assistant district attorneys and other workers comes into the office to deal with court processes that are still taking place during pandemic. Those include bail reviews, arraignments in domestic violence cases, protection order hearings and child protective hearings.

Trials, grand juries and many other court proceedings have been postponed until at least May 15 under a judicial order issued as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And courthouses have been open, but with reduced hours. The Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, for example, is currently open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon.

Maloney hopes more hearings and dispositional conferences, at which lawyer for both sides meet to try to resolve cases, will be allowed to take place as of May 15.

She emphasized the district attorney’s office is still functioning and taking cases. She also noted organizations that help victims of crimes, including domestic abuse, are also still functioning and offering help.

The Family Violence Project is reachable at 1-877-890-7788, and  Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center is reachable at 1-800-871-7741.

Many of the court proceedings still taking place are using videoconferencing. A recent session of arraignments of suspects being held in jail was presided over by Justice Michaela Murphy, with only her, a court clerk and a court security officer in the courtroom.

An assistant district attorney, a representative of the attorney general’s office, an official from Maine Pretrial Services, a defense lawyer and a string of inmates at Kennebec County jail took part in the arraignments by video.

At times, the audio cut out, making it hard for Murphy to communicate with suspects at the jail and the defense lawyers.

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