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Pandemic Has Left Maine With A Surging Backlog Of Criminal Cases

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Natalie Williams
/
Bangor Daily News
Carine Reeves appears at his murder trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor in September 2020. Reeves' trial was one of the few jury trials that have taken place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are 10,000 more criminal cases awaiting a resolution in Maine than there were a year ago, but the increase has been most pronounced in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

That’s likely the result of prosecutors in those two counties continuing to file more charges than their counterparts elsewhere, and offering defendants fewer favorable plea deals to resolve cases. The steep increase in unresolved criminal cases comes at a time when police have been urged to make fewer arrests to avoid crowding jails, where COVID-19 can spread easily. But the high backlog of unresolved cases means that defendants who can’t post bail spend more time in jail than they would have before the pandemic, adding to the population of the chronically overcrowded Penobscot County Jail in Bangor.

The backlog in unresolved criminal cases is the result of the pandemic having nearly brought Maine’s criminal justice system to a halt.

Across the state, there were 18,157 unresolved cases as of Feb. 5, up 53 percent from the same time a year earlier. But the number of unresolved cases was up by 103 percent in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, which make up Prosecutorial District 5, where Marianne Lynch is the district attorney.

That compares to increases of 79.2 percent in York County and 45.6 percent in Cumberland County, which have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. In the prosecutorial district that includes Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, the backlog is 43 percent higher this year, while it’s 32 percent higher in the district that includes Kennebec and Somerset counties, according to state court system statistics.

Lynch, the district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said she doesn’t resolve cases simply for the sake of reducing a backlog, noting that for every case, there are “victims who have suffered from serious domestic violence, sexual assaults, significant life changing financial loss, child victims of child exploitation, death of a loved one from a motor vehicle fatality, the list goes on.”

“Numbers, without context, do not tell the entire story,” she said. “Administrative needs to reduce ‘cases’ does not outweigh my responsibility to seek appropriate outcomes based on the individualized needs of the offender and the safety of the victims and the community.”

District attorneys and police throughout Maine have employed a variety of strategies to reduce the number of people charged with crimes during the pandemic. Police have made fewer arrests to reduce jail populations, and prosecutors statewide filed 7,935 fewer new cases in 2020 than in 2019, an 18 percent drop.

But courts in southern and western Maine accounted for most of that drop. The district attorney’s office for the midcoast region filed just 182 fewer cases in 2020 than in the previous year, while 647 fewer cases were filed in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties — drops of 5 and 10 percent respectively, compared with drops of 20 percent and greater in southern and western Maine.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.