York County Superior Court Judge Richard Mulhern on Friday gave new reporting dates to more than 20 criminal defendants who were sentenced to self-report to the York County Jail in recent months, yet were turned away because of COVID-19 and staffing problems, often without prior notification.
Defendants and attorneys turned on their Zoom cameras during the court hearing, which was held remotely due to COVID, and explained to the judge the issues the delays caused in their lives: Nearly all of them experienced complications with their jobs and housing due to the jail’s problems.
“They (my employer) looked at me like I was full of crap,” said Scott Cole, who was turned away from jail and went to the courthouse seeking a new jail start date three times. “No matter what I tell them, they aren’t going to be satisfied. You cried wolf three times.”
An empathetic Judge Mulhern likened it to skipping work for a family member’s death. “It’s like saying your grandmother died and it’s your third grandma,” he said.
For a variety of reasons, some defendants are allowed to report to jail on a designated date, giving the person time to settle personal matters. Until then, a defendant is typically under bail conditions.
However, COVID-19 and staffing issues have left the York County Jail unable to accept new inmates. The jail updated its intake policies, which prioritized incarcerating violent offenders, Sept. 6.
On Friday, Mulhern rescheduled many of the report dates for spring, allowing time for defense attorneys to file motions on the legality of the jail delays. Two defendants at the hearing were denied entry to the jail earlier Friday.
Improperly handled by the jail
During the Zoom hearing, defense lawyers discussed various ways the jail delays themselves could be illegal.
Some said it was a due process violation. Others said the delays are so unreasonable that remaining jail time should be forgone and changed to administrative release. Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said administrative release may be the best path forward.
In a Nov. 9 email, Andrus wrote to MCILS attorneys that there must be a plan which “allows indigent defendants to predict and plan for their incarceration after they have made their bargains with the state.”
“I propose converting the sentences to administrative release so that these defendants are not subject to coercive power for longer than they have bargained for,” he wrote. Administrative release places a defendant under similar conditions to bail or probation instead of sending them to jail.
Peter Rodway, a defense attorney, said at the hearing that the York County Jail’s recent practice of turning away inmates when they show up to begin their terms — often, without their lawyers knowing it would happen — may be a violation of due process that’s worth litigating further.
“The other thing I just want to throw out just for the sake of argument, and to get people thinking, is I don’t think it really makes any difference whether this is by order of a judge, or it’s something that the jail did on their own,” Rodway said. “The same harm is done.”
Prosecutors were relatively quiet throughout the hearing, agreeing with future sentencing dates. In two cases involving husband and wife defendants, defense lawyer Roger Brunelle asked if the state would “pursue other options” instead of having his clients report back to York County Jail.
Elizabeth Weyl, an Assistant Attorney General, said the state would not be willing to make changes.
“These were cases of theft and evasion of taxes that the state takes very seriously,” Weyl said. “They were pleaded down from felonies. And I argued for much longer sentences at a sentencing hearing. So the state firmly believes that these are already lenient sentences for these cases.”
Defendants explained many different effects the jail delays have had on their lives.
One man lived in Connecticut and traveled to Maine to serve his sentence, only to be turned away. He said he was stuck in Alfred for almost 24 hours because he had given his phone to the person who dropped him off at the jail, as he expected to be incarcerated. The man must serve probation after his time in jail. His inability to serve the sentence has delayed his probation as well.
In early September, Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz signed an order halting self-reports to jail until Friday’s hearing, and most defendants were unaware until they arrived at the jail to check in. The Maine Monitor, nearly one month ago, was first to report what was happening.
While Moskowitz’s order was signed in September, defendants at the hearing Friday said they were turned away as early as April 30.
While COVID-19 and staffing shortages have impacted jails across Maine, defense attorney Robert Ruffner said nothing has happened “to the same extent” as York County.
“There is a different way this could have been done,” Ruffner said.
Mulhern was sympathetic to the situation throughout the hearing, giving time for defendants to explain how their lives were negatively impacted by the delays.
“It’s very unfortunate how it all took place,” he said.
It is expected that York County Jail will accept defendants when they show up to serve their time on new dates, the earliest of which is in January, Mulhern said at the hearing.