New Maine Bail Reform bill would abolish bail for many crimes

Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross is the sponsor of L.D. 1421 An Act to Amend the Maine Bail Code

AUGUSTA – One thing most people with experience in Maine’s Judicial or jail system would agree on is a need to reform Maine’s bail laws. Some say that as many as two-thirds of the people in Maine’s jails right now have not been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial and unable to make bail. The system as it currently stands places a heavy burden on taxpayers and to the loved ones and dependents of those in jail awaiting trial.

Stories can be found across the state of household breadwinners in low-income households being arrested and held because they are unable to make bail.

Advocates for reform argue that the bail system itself is built upon a centuries old system where bail was treated more as a penalty for not appearing in court for your crimes than as it currently is – which looks more like paying for your freedom before being found guilty.

But a new bill in the Maine Legislature is proposing to overhaul Maine’s bail system, and some of the changes are likely to hit opposition for a new, looser approach to releasing some Mainers accused of crimes.

The bill also would remove the requirement that a defendant consent to submit to random searches for possession or use of alcohol or illicit drugs, and it removes the requirement for a defendant to regularly report to their attorney.

The bill, L.D. 1421 is titled An Act to Amend the Maine Bail Code and is sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross. It received strong support from bail reform and prisoner advocates at a public hearing in late February, but chatter had been picking up that some of the reforms may go too far.

In the original bill text, the bail reform proposal “Clarified the rebuttable presumption that, except for formerly capital offenses a defendant must be released on personal recognizance with no conditions.”

Maine Bail Code defines “formerly capital offenses” as “crimes which have been denominated capital offenses since the adoption of the Constitution of Maine.”

Those formerly capital offenses are murder, treason, rape, armed robbery, armed burglary of a dwelling at night and arson of a dwelling at night. (Harnish v. State, 1987).

That fundamentally meant that anyone arrested for any crime that was not one of those six crimes would have been released on personal recognizance with no ability to require bail.

Under new language brought forward by the bill sponsor in testimony at the public hearing, the bill would only allow bail for those arrested for more serious crimes, such as the aforementioned “formerly capital offenses” and other Class D or worse crimes, which carry maximum sentences of more than six months in jail and maximum fines of $2,000 to $50,000.

If that language passes, many arrests will no longer result in a person being required to make bail. Some Class E crimes are relatively minor in regard to public safety, such as violations of Maine’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife laws. Others include laws that forbid shooting of domestic animals; criminal trespass; theft by unauthorized taking or transfer; theft by deception and many more.

The new language also proposes other changes, including removing “from the list of potential conditions of release for preconviction bail being required to submit to a random search for possession or use of alcohol or illegal use of drugs when use or possession is prohibited by a condition of release, and being required to report on a regular basis to the defendant’s attorney.”

“One of the things that moved me to sponsor this bill, and also struck me about the driver’s licenses bill, is the idea that some of our laws intended to punish people for doing wrong end up punishing people more severely than the nature of the wrong. In doing so, the laws also end up disproportionately harming that person, as Well as exacting damage on their children, families, schools and communities in the process,” said Rep. Talbot-Ross in testimony to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Bail reform laws across the nation have been a mixed bag.

In New York, the state’s recent bail reforms have come under fire from Republicans and some Democrats, who argue that the reforms have triggered more people to commit crimes and unleashed a wave of repeat offenders. The issue became so serious that New York City’s largest police union declared a “public safety emergency.”

In California, a bail reform law passed by the state legislature and signed by the Governor faces an effort to cancel the law through a state referendum on the 2020 ballot.

In New Jersey, reports say pretrial crime only increased by about one percent, and that state’s bail reform, passed in 2017, has been hailed as a success.

The Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will take up L.D. 1421 in a work session scheduled for 1pm on Thursday, March 12. That work session will take place in Room 438 of the State House.

Read the original bill text:

Read the amended bill text:

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