COVID causing Maine county jail to turn away people who come to serve sentences

Those given temporary stays may ultimately have their sentences revised or waived


By Dennis Hoey
Portland Press Herald
        
ALFRED, Maine — Defendants reporting to the York County Jail in Alfred are being turned away because of concerns about COVID-19 and told to return on Dec. 3 to have their sentences revised or in some cases possibly waived.

The practice has been going on since early September and has affected an undisclosed number of people, most of whom have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes, who have gone to the jail to begin serving their court-ordered sentences.

Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz issued an order Sept. 8 that said in light of potential public health concerns over COVID-19 expressed by jail officials it would be imprudent for defendants to serve a sentence for which they have previously been granted a stay of execution. Moskowitz says anyone who shows up to serve their sentence will be given a copy of his order and be granted a further stay.

The judge's order, which was obtained by the Portland Press Herald, further states that defendants must report to the York County Courthouse on Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. "for further consideration" of their stay of execution.

York County Sheriff William L. King Jr., in an email Thursday evening, confirmed that the jail has been complying with Moskowitz's order. The jail does not typically notify someone who is self-reporting in advance about the new policy.

But not everyone is pleased with the decision to send potential inmates away, including Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

Andrus said the order has already impacted one client, who recently came to the York County Jail from his home out-of-state to serve his sentence. He was turned away and as a result ended up losing his job.

Andrus did not provide additional details, but said the order negatively impacts people who don't want to have a sentence hanging over their head. Delaying sentences can impact a person's job, child care arrangements and housing situation.

For a variety of reasons, some defendants are allowed to report to prison on a designated date, giving the person time to settle personal matters. Until then, a defendant is typically under bail conditions.

Defendants serving time in a county jail typically have sentences of nine months or less, meaning they usually committed lower-level crimes, hope to do the jail time and move on.

"I'm deeply concerned because any defendant who has pleaded guilty has made a bargain with the state to serve a specific sentence. Now, the state is trying to give them a stay (on their sentence) that they didn't agree to," he said. "It can place a tremendous strain on their life. The indigent population we represent are already facing daily challenges in trying to fulfill their needs."

The commission represents homeless individuals, persons with mental health and addiction issues, as well as disabled persons.

Andrus said several defense attorneys he contacted were unaware of the York County Jail's policy. He plans to show up at the courthouse on Dec. 3 to make sure defendants have adequate legal representation.
   
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