Maine Lawmakers Consider Bill to End Cash Bail for Minor Offenses

Cash bail for low-level offenses disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
May 21, 2021 11:00 am

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AUGUSTA – Lawmakers will consider a bill that would address the unfair practice of holding people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail during a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee at 9 am this morning.

LD 1703, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (Portland), would eliminate cash bail for most Class E misdemeanors. These include the lowest level offenses such as drinking in public and criminal trespass. The bill would also clarify standards for bail commissioners, judges and prosecutors to set bail and impose bail conditions.

“Unaffordable cash bail for minor crimes is one of the key ways low-income people and people of color do not get equal access to justice in Maine,” said Rep. Talbot Ross. “Cash bail effectively creates two systems of justice: one for the wealthy, and one for everyone else. LD 1703 would fix one of the most profoundly unjust parts of our legal system.”

Studies have found that defendants who can’t afford bail are more likely to be sentenced to longer jail or prison time. They are also more likely to take plea deals and plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The practice of unaffordable cash bail disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness, people of color and low-income people.

A 2015 survey of five jails by the Maine Judicial Branch found the average cash bail for Class E offenses was $722 and the average length of pretrial detention for Class E offenses was about a month (see Appendix C). According to that same report, the majority of people (between 60 – 80 percent) held in Maine jails are pretrial defendants, meaning that the majority of people in Maine jails are deprived of their liberty before they have had their day in court (see Appendix H).

“One of the principles of our justice system is that everybody is equal before the law,” said Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine. “Whether a lobsterman or a lawyer, a carpenter or a CEO, all people should have the same rights. When wealthy people can buy their freedom, while those struggling financially can’t, cash bail undermines the promise of equality under the law.”

View the Judiciary Committee hearing here.

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