ALFRED – Defendants ordered to report to the York County Jail in Alfred on Sept. 8 or later have seen their sentences adjourned until at least early December, and many were not notified that their sentences had been changed until they arrived to check in.
The delays were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the order of Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz. Neither the York County Sheriff’s Office nor the court know how many people were affected.
“In light of those concerns, the court has ruled that it is currently imprudent for people to serve a sentence for which they previously received a stay of execution,” Moskowitz wrote. The warrant orders anyone who has extended their stay to report to the York County courthouse for a hearing on Dec. 3.
York County Sheriff William King confirmed that the prison does not notify self-reporters before they show up.
Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said many attorneys were also not notified that their clients were required to appear at the courthouse, so he plans to be there on December 3 to make sure that the defendants have counsel.
“Part of the reason I plan to be there that day is that I can appoint counsel, if appropriate, to represent people out there whose counsel may not have gotten the message for some reason. , or may not have been aware of the problem,” Andrus said.
A York County Clerk said she couldn’t find who the warrant to appear had been sent to, and it was her understanding that defendants were given the warrant in jail and turned away when they arrived to serve their sentences.
The court will issue self-report orders to the prison but not to the convict or their attorneys, confirmed Amy Quinlan, communications director for the Maine Judicial Branch. “The self-reporting warrant will have a date several weeks or months in the future when they can come back to court and get a new reporting date,” she said in an email.
Some say the delays are necessary because COVID-19 is spreading through understaffed prisons in Maine. But the delays are also a setback for people who have committed lower-level crimes, ending up in a county jail rather than a state jail.
For various reasons, some defendants are allowed to report to prison on a specific date, so that the person has time to manage personal matters. Until then, a defendant is usually under bail conditions.
Defendants serving time in county jails typically have sentences of nine months or less, meaning they usually have committed lower-level crimes, hope to serve the jail term and move on.
York County has been dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks at its prison, as well as staffing issues, which King says has led the sheriff’s office to change intake protocols.
Quinlan said if people fail to show up for their prison dates, police should inform prosecutors.
While the number of people who have been able to enter the York County jail is unclear, Andrus said the problem is “ubiquitous.” Several criminal defense attorneys contacted by the Monitor said they had not come across the matter themselves, but also heard of prison delays in Cumberland and Aroostook counties.
The conditions that suspects must meet between sentencing and reporting to prison are strict, and violations can easily happen, Andrus said.
“If a person consumes alcohol while there was an alcohol restriction, that could be a crime,” Andrus said. “And it’s easy to say, ‘So don’t drink.’ But the reality is that the longer time passes, the harder it is for people to conform to the requirements.
“People can’t plan for jobs. People can’t plan housing,” Andrus said. “Many of our needy populations are not people who can maintain their housing during a period of incarceration.”
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Emma Bond, the legal director of the ACLU of Maine, said the issue is layered. First, she believes that putting someone in an overcrowded county jail battling a deadly virus isn’t the answer. But stopping someone from sitting out their time and moving forward is also not right.
“The priority should be to get as many people out of these facilities as possible,” she said.
Bond said there must be a “system-wide effort” to reduce the number of people incarcerated.
“Any warrant that allows the execution of a sentence to some extent is good if it keeps people out of prison,” Bond said. “But it puts the uncertainty of a COVID outbreak on the person. It has to be a system-wide response, as opposed to individuals who still have their sentences hanging over their heads.”
Also, Andrus, the director of MCILS, said: “These things affect poor and needy customers more significantly than people of the means.”
He said it is the state’s responsibility to navigate COVID-19 without placing undue burdens on those serving their sentences.
“The bottom line is that criminal law cannot be applied at the convenience of any of the participants,” he said. When people are convicted, they enter into a contract with the state, Andrus continued, and part of that contract in many cases is jail time.
“The state must own a percentage of the deal by applying the penalty at the time agreed, or the state must waive its penalty,” he said.
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