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Judiciary Committee Considers Bill That Would Make Major Changes To Maine's Bail System

A new bill would make major changes to the state's bail system.

On Tuesday, the legislature's Judiciary Committee considered the bill, from Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, which would eliminate cash bail for some Class E, low-level offenses, with an exceptions for those relating to domestic violence or sexual assault.

Emma LeBlanc, a researcher with the ACLU of Maine, says that cash bail has created a two-tiered justice system, where lower-income defendants are incarcerated before reaching trial because they can't afford bail. She says that can have major impacts on families and communities.

“I met people experiencing homelessness who lost their beds in shelters. And I met people with substance use disorder who lost their beds in rehab. Every single one of those cases was a misdemeanor,” LeBlanc says. “These are not the crimes for which people should be held in jail before trial, at great personal cost and expense to taxpayers.”

The bill would also require courts to consider additional factors while setting bail, including a defendant's health needs and whether they're responsible for the care of another person. At a public hearing Tuesday, Talbot Ross said low-income residents can be left incarcerated for days because they're unable to afford bail, which she says punishes them before they've even gone to trial.

“This system also disproportionately harms people of color, who have often had significantly higher cash bail set than others who commit the same crimes,” Talbot Ross says. “It is discriminatory. It is costly. It doesn't work. In fact, research shows that no evidence of people who pay cash bail are more likely to return to court than people who return on their own recognizance.”