Opinion

Court backlogs hurt defendants, victims and taxpayers — and they may violate the Constitution

By BDN Editorial Board

The backlog of criminal cases in Washington County is so bad that it could take 15 years to resolve it, according to one lawyer’s calculations. Other counties, especially Penobscot, Piscataquis and Waldo, have also seen large increases in the backlog of criminal cases awaiting resolution in court in recent years.

There are a number of reasons for the growing backlog. Courts were closed for months and their operations were restricted because of the COVID pandemic. Maine has a chronic shortage of court-appointed defense attorneys for low-income defendants. There is a shortage of judicial marshals, who are needed to provide security in courtrooms.

And, despite dropping crime rates statewide, many jails in the state are straining under a growing number of inmates who are awaiting trials and other court dates, sometimes for months, even years.

It all adds up to a system that can deprive defendants of their rights to a speedy and fair trial, while also potentially disrupting their lives, jobs and relationships with family members. The system also costs taxpayers increasing sums to keep people in jail for extended periods of time while they await court dates.

Worst of all, the system may run afoul of the state and federal constitutions, something the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering in a case that is before it.

There is no one solution to this problem, but hiring more court personnel, further revamping the state’s indigent defense system and revising state sentencing rules must be on the table.

Between May 2019 and May 2022, there has been an 83 percent increase in felony cases pending in county courts. The largest increase was in Penobscot County, where the number of pending felony cases jumped from 333 to 986. 

Not coincidentally, the Penobscot County Jail has been chronically overcrowded and county officials are considering expansions to the facility in Bangor.

In Washington County, there are 15 homicide cases pending, plus 16 drug cases and seven sex offenses cases pending, and 34 domestic violence, assault or protection order violations ready for trial, according to a memo prepared by Jeffrey Davidson, an attorney in Machias. In these cases, which are part of a longer list of cases pending in the county, victims and defendants are awaiting resolutions that will impact their lives.

“Those of us who practice criminal law as either prosecutors or defense counsel know that

the current backlog is unsustainable,” he wrote. Davidson, who calculated it could take 15 years to clear the country’s backed up cases, offered several suggestions to ease the backlog, including more use of settlement conferences to seek resolution of pending cases.

In Washington County, Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen plans a “trial blitz” to reduce the backlog. 

Mullen, chief judge of the state’s superior courts, and another justice will spend the month of October in Machias presiding at jury and jury-waived trials in a concerted effort to resolve criminal cases.

“If it is successful, we can try it in other courthouses,” Mullen told the Bangor Daily News. “The thing that gets cases resolved is a trial date.”

This is likely to help, but it isn’t the full solution. 

“The backlog is ridiculous and is imposing real consequences,” Zach Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine, told the BDN editorial board.

For one, it costs taxpayers money to keep defendants in jail as they await court dates. More fundamentally, holding people in jail disrupts their lives and can lead to a loss of a job and connections with family. 

Long waits for a trial can also push people toward plea agreements whereby they plead guilty just so they can get out of jail, Heiden said. This is counter to the U.S. value of a presumption of innocence.

Heiden called on law enforcement and district attorneys to think about the backlog when they consider arrests and charges.

Decisions made by people with power – police, prosecutors, judges – are causing the court backlogs, but the consequences are borne by the people with the least power – defendants and their alleged victims, he said.

It is up to those with power to make this a priority and to take more steps to ease the backlog, before the Maine Supreme Court might order them to do so.

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