April 02, 2020

Leaders endorse cooperation > Top state officials make joint appearance

AUGUSTA — In a rare mutual appearance, the state’s governor, attorney general, chief justice, speaker of the House and president of the Senate shared a stage Thursday. The appearance before the Maine Bar Association at the Augusta Civic Center underlined the need for greater cooperation and communication among all branches of government.

A perfect illustration of the need for greater communication was the change in the “good-time law” that changed the length of prison sentences, speakers agreed. Attorney General Andrew Ketterer, who served as moderator, said the average days in prison rose from 50 percent of the original sentence to more than 80 percent with the change in good time. The unforeseen effect was people staying in prison for longer and longer sentences, forcing a “crisis” in crowded conditions, said Gov. Angus King.

The prison problem will grow even more acute in the next two to three years, forcing dramatic expenditures, the governor said.

The Legislature must do a better job of examining the consequences of new legislation, according to House Speaker Libby Mitchell. The Legislature reacted to constituent calls for longer sentences but failed to see the dramatic impact on the penal institutions, she said. The Legislature is further behind the other branches in adapting new technology to the workload, Mitchell said.

The public often sends a “mixed message” to its politicians, said Senate President Mark Lawrence. While they call for tougher sentences they routinely reject prison bond referendums. “We need to do a better job on educating the public,” Lawrence said.

An unexpected consequence of the passage of the term-limit bill was the loss of institutional memory and increased power to the Senate, Lawrence said. Many of the incoming senators already had served terms in the House, while many of the new representatives came in with no experience, Lawrence said.

The public has a “thirst for punishment” and long prison sentences, but the judiciary failed to balance that with adequate prison facilities at the time of sentencing, said Chief Justice Daniel Wathen.

When asked about the problem of prolonged delays in court cases, “The simple fact is, by any standard, the courts are one-third underfunded and one-third understaffed. Maine judges have among the heaviest caseloads in the country. If we want improvement we have to spend some money,” Wathen said.

The state needs 30 additional judges, the chief justice said. The supplementary budget going before the next session will contain $1 million in judges’ salary increases.

Wathen asked for greater explanation of the intent of legislation, but both Mitchell and Lawrence said that was close to impossible since there was often as many interpretations as people voting on a bill. One hurdle to communication with the bench is the tremendous respect for judges, which often inhibits legislators from direct contact, Mitchell said.

Maine should be thankful for the “priestly aura” for jurists compared to states where judges are elected, King said. The challenge for judges is to avoid going over the line of independence and impartiality into indifference and arrogance, Wathen said.

King supported the salary increase for judges but said needed improvements in child protective services and prisons will be extremely difficult in a state that has the eighth-highest per capita taxes compared to income. “Those questions would be a lot easier to answer if we were 48th or 50th. We don’t have much slack. We do the best we can,” King said.

King said he was acutely aware of the power of vetoes, pardons and commutations, which he pledged to use sparingly. “It is not my job to deliver a second option on sentencing,” King said. King said he has vetoed about a half-dozen bills, compared to the governor of New Mexico who vetoed 206 bills.

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