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New group aims to shed light on what's happening in Maine district courts

Levent Konuk

A small pilot program is recruiting volunteers to visit, record and monitor what's happening in district courts in Maine.

Under the CourtWatchME initiative, two Colby College students and a few other volunteers are visiting courtrooms in Augusta, Waterville and Skowhegan, recording and documenting court arraignments and publicizing the outcomes.

Volunteers have documented more than 100 arraignments in Kennebec County district courts, said Winifred Tate, an anthropology professor and director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College.

Tate launched the program with Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, last fall and been adding volunteers since then.

The effort is especially important in Maine, Tate said, because most courts in the state don't keep online records. And most cases are settled through plea deals.

"The vast majority of cases, over 98%, are settled through plea deals, which have minimal paper trails," she said. We don't know what the initial offers were, we don't know what the negotiations were, we don't know what kind of representation people got in the courtroom. Those cases by design leave very little record. That's a very important issue if we want to know what happens to the majority of people that are brought up on charges through the court system in Maine."

Tate said the work so far has shown how few proceedings lead to treatment for people with drug possession and trafficking charges, and it sheds more light on the ongoing shortage of public defenders in Maine.

"We have seen that born out in cases where lawyers are only meeting on Zoom," Tate said. "They're not able to go and represent their clients in front of a judge. There are huge barriers to people getting the kind of defense, counsel and representation that they need."

Other states have launched similar CourtWatch programs.

Tate said the program is actively recruiting and training more volunteers and hopes to expand its presence throughout Maine over the next year.

Those interested in becoming a volunteer can find more information at the CourtWatchME website.