Police, prosecutors and judges in Maine are taking steps to avoid sending non-violent offenders to jail. The spread of the coronavirus has prompted Maine courts to issue orders vacating outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and unpaid restitution.
No civil or criminal trials will be held until at least May 1, and at least two county jails are releasing certain prisoners early.
Advocates have also been calling on the Maine Department of Corrections to take similar action and late Friday afternoon the Department announced that it would.
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in state prisons, but advocates in Maine and around the country are urging the criminal justice system to prevent jails and prisons' close quarters from becoming a breeding ground for the coronavirus.
"Here in Maine we're hoping that officials will be able to consider releasing people who are in prison right now, people who have less than a year on their sentence and who are almost done serving their time,” says Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine.
The group is also asking that older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions be considered for release because they've been identified as more susceptible to serious effects from COVID-19.
"We know that Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country, and that also resonates in our prison population. So, we hope that the Commissioner will consider those who are over 55 and if they can be released safely into the community, we hope that they'll consider doing so."
Activists with Maine Youth Justice, a campaign to end youth incarceration in Maine, are also calling on the DOC to release about 50 kids being held at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and to close the facility. Al Cleveland is the campaign's director who says conditions inside during the coronavirus crisis are exacerbated for kids with limited contact with the outside world now that visitors and volunteers are prohibited.
"We know the isolation that will happen to young people without visits to their family and without access to technology could severely harm their mental health for the rest of their lives. I mean, this is an urgent call, and we're really hoping to see action from our state officials.”
In a statement released late Friday afternoon, Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty said the DOC would begin immediate review of adults and juveniles for placement in supervised community confinement or for community reintegration. Those deemed low risk and not serving a sentence for a violent crime are being reviewed first. Regarding kids at Long Creek, Liberty said five detained youth at the center will have left by the beginning of next week, and nine committed youth will be released by early next month.
Beyea says Liberty's action is a good first step, but she wants him to go even further.
Meanwhile, Jim Mackie of AFSCME Council 9, the union representing corrections officers and other prison staff, is warning of a deepening staffing shortage because of new coronavirus screening protocols for workers entering state corrections facilities each day.
"All of our staff every morning now are being shot with a temperature gun and given a form to fill out with several questions on it. And if you answer yes to, I think one or two of the questions, and you're at home, if you pop on the temperature gun, you were sent home and not in denied entry, and you have to then cover all that time with your time."
Mackie says currently that the Maine State Prison and other facilities are short more than 50 corrections officers. But if others are forced to stay home for 14 days under the new protocols, Mackie says some workers may simply choose to leave at a time when they may be needed most.
Originally published 6:26 p.m. March 20, 2020