It’s a Monday morning in July at the District Court building in the heart of Augusta. Defendants shuffle into the courtroom, waiting to be arraigned.
One after another, they’re called to appear before a judge. Hearings typically last just a few minutes. But as reform advocates point out, the arraignments — when someone is called to respond to criminal charges — have the potential to create ripple effects that endure much longer, leaving defendants with a permanent mark on their record or saddling them with a fine they sometimes can’t afford.
Watching it all, recording how this important yet little-understood process works, is an organization seeking to shine a light on Maine’s criminal legal system through intensive observation and large-scale data collection.
CourtWatch ME is a program developed by term-limited state Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) and the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College. Similar programs exist in some other states as advocates seek a greater understanding of what happens each day within the judicial system.
Warren — the longtime House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee — said the concept of CourtWatch ME is simple. Trained volunteers show up to hearings and record the results of each case, with the program currently operational in the Augusta court on Mondays, Waterville District Court on Tuesdays and Skowhegan District Court on Wednesdays. That data is then collected, with the goal of using it to create public reports that show what happens within Maine’s criminal legal system.
CourtWatch leaders will be analyzing data collected during the summer soon and will likely put out a report in mid-September, said Winifred Tate of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College.
Along with gathering data, Warren explained that another goal of the program is to ensure that recently enacted laws, such as bail reform, are actually being implemented in the courts. In addition, Warren said she hopes the program will become a mechanism to help build a sustainable movement aimed at changing Maine’s punitive legal system.
“Once you’re in the courtroom, you go from being somebody who is interested to somebody who is going to be a reformer,” Warren said of the power of CourtWatch. “You become an activist; you want to get involved.”
Shining a light on Maine’s legal system
On that Monday morning in Augusta, CourtWatch was there observing nearly 30 arraignments. A “lawyer of the day” was present to provide legal advice to defendants, with a line quickly forming for his services.
One by one, those present went up and entered a plea of either guilty or not guilty (although a few cases were simply dismissed by prosecutors). Those who pleaded not guilty were told to come back for another hearing — usually in January of 2023 — and, in many cases, were assigned a court-appointed lawyer because they didn’t have the means to hire their own.
Some defendants pleaded guilty. In those cases, prosecutors typically requested a fine that the judge then imposed of somewhere between $100 to $500 depending on the crime. However, each fine also came with what the judge referred to as a “surcharge.” As a result, a $100 fine became $160 while a $150 fine became $220. A few defendants said they could pay the fine that day. But because of limited means, many needed to arrange a plan with the court to pay over the course of multiple months. In some cases, other conditions, such as a mandatory loss of a driver’s license, were imposed along with the fine.
Over a dozen other defendants didn’t show up for their hearings. In those cases, the state frequently sought between $100-$500 in bail, although in some cases prosecutors didn’t ask for a bail amount to be levied. Research shows that people who don’t show up for court hearings tend to be poor or have other issues in their lives that make it more difficult to attend arraignments.
Warren, who has been doing CourtWatch for months now, said witnessing how the judicial system actually operates has been illuminating.
“I’m constantly wondering what is the purpose for the prosecutor charging these cases,” Warren said, referring to minor violations. “Will this fix a situation? What I know pretty consistently from people I have in my life that have been involved in the criminal justice system is that you can guarantee we are giving the person shame and stigma and we are costing them money” when minor crimes are prosecuted.
Tate, who is also an anthropology professor at Colby College, said the CourtWatch program has also been revealing in terms of how the judicial system deals with people with substance use disorder. Tate and Warren both said they have long heard prosecutors and law enforcement officials claim that those who use drugs are usually diverted from the legal system and entered into treatment programs. However, Tate said what she’s heard from people actually being prosecuted has often been very different. CourtWatch has allowed advocates to get a firsthand look at the reality of the situation, she said.
“What I’m seeing is that in fact there are really serious issues with people not getting adequate representation, which is well documented in Maine, and that the diversion systems are not in place for the people that need them and that the support systems are not in place … specifically substance abuse and mental health supports for people,” she said.
Warren agreed, saying she has never heard the word “treatment” mentioned in the court cases she’s watched and that volunteers in Waterville have heard it mentioned just once.
CourtWatch volunteers speak about importance of program
Angela Mellon, a volunteer for CourtWatch ME, said participating in the program has only reinforced her perception of who is most impacted by the judicial system.
“Attending court proves to me that it’s really a lot of poor people who are pulled into this system,” Mellon said. “I understand that just from seeing who’s in the room with me.”
Mellon explained that many arraignments they’ve witnessed have involved vehicle offenses or misdemeanor theft cases at large stores such as Walmart or Hannaford. CourtWatch, Mellon said, has provided an opportunity to see how minor offenses can have a lingering effect on a person’s life, pointing to the case of one man who chose to plead guilty simply to get out of the courtroom as quickly as possible. That conviction now has the potential to follow him around for the rest of his life, Mellon said.
Mellon argued that gaining an understanding of how people are impacted by the judicial system is critically important.
“If there isn’t someone watching what’s going on in the courtroom, then we just don’t know what’s going on in the courtroom and we don’t know what’s happening in our communities,” Mellon said.
Matt Matheny, a Colby College student and an intern with CourtWatch ME, agreed that the initiative plays an important role in informing the public about the judicial system. He added that his biggest takeaway from being involved in the program are the problems plaguing Maine’s indigent legal defense system. In a number of cases he’s watched, Matheny said defendants have been assigned lawyers far away from their geographic area because there are no available attorneys in their region, which has the potential to cause problems in the quality of representation people receive.
The legal services system for low-income people in Maine has drawn heavy criticism and frequent calls for reform. Maine has few public defenders and instead typically contracts with private attorneys to represent low-income defendants. However, the number of lawyers involved in the program has dropped steeply in recent years, making it difficult to cover the amount of cases before the legal system.
Along with shedding light on the problems with that setup, Matheny said another benefit of CourtWatch is how it helps break down the barriers between those accused of crimes and the rest of the community.
“So often there is a divide between these two groups: ‘noncriminals and criminals.’ But I think by being in court and seeing people in court, you come to the realization that there isn’t really a stark dividing line between those two categories of people and that everyone is citizens together,” he said.
So far, Warren said CourtWatch ME has trained about 20 volunteers but is looking for more people to participate in the program. In particular, she said the group is seeking volunteers to help the initiative expand to Cumberland and Androscoggin counties. Those interested in being part of CourtWatch can email [email protected] or visit the organization’s website.
“There is no previous experience needed, no time commitment,” Warren said. “Some people literally do one shift every two months or so. Join us.”
Top photo: Joe Gratz, Creative Commons via Flickr