BAR HARBOR – The superior courts are struggling to deal with a dramatic increase in the number of felony cases the system is handling each year, but prosecutors and judges can dispense justice efficiently when they communicate well and innovate jointly.
That was the message a panel of five Maine Superior Courts justices brought Tuesday to prosecutors from around the state gathered this week in Bar Harbor for their annual meeting.
Superior Court Justices Thomas E. Humphrey, Roland A. Cole, Robert E. Crowley, Thomas E. Delahanty II and Nancy Mills attended the 90-minute session, “View from the Superior Bench.” The more than 80 state and federal prosecutors who participated lobbed questions and complaints at the justices in an atmosphere far less formal than the courtroom where the two groups usually meet.
“In every aspect of the system where there’s been good communication and innovation, there’s been a good solution,” Humphrey, chief justice of the superior courts, said Tuesday. “I urge you to talk to each other. Maybe what worked in one [prosecutorial] district will work in another.”
One of those innovations has been the way Evert Fowle, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, and Justice Mills handle felony cases, which continue to rise.
There has been a 41 percent increase in the number of criminal cases filed in the state’s superior courts, Humphrey told the group. There were 9,900 cases filed in 1997, compared to the 15,000 expected to be filed by the end of this year. At the same time, the budget for jury costs has decreased by 23 percent from $524,300 in 1997 to $400,000 in 2006, he said.
All felony charges in Maine are handled in Maine’s 16 superior courts, while misdemeanors are handled in the state’s 24 district courts. All jury trials, no matter what the charge, must be held in superior court.
Earlier this year, the judicial system changed the way felonies traditionally have been handled. Previously, every person charged with any crime first appeared in district court to be told of the charges. At that time, bail was set and a probable cause hearing was set.
Few probable cause hearings were ever held because most often the defendant was indicted by a grand jury before its scheduled date. The grand jury’s action negated the need for the hearing and the next court event was an arraignment where the defendant entered a not guilty plea and the case was set for trial.
Now, everyone charged with a felony makes a first appearance in superior court where a date for a status conference rather than a probable cause hearing is set. In Penobscot and most other counties, that date still is being set for after the grand jury meets. Fowle and Mills, however, most often meet for status conferences two months after the defendant’s initial appearance but before the case has been presented to a grand jury. The judge and prosecutor discuss whether a plea agreement has been reached.
“It’s working beautifully,” Mills said of the arrangement. “It’s been very productive.”
Out of the 24 cases she considered at a recent status conference, 16 of the defendants pleaded guilty to informations rather than grand jury indictments, six were scheduled to plead guilty on other dates and defendants in two cases opted to go to the grand jury, Mills said.
Fowle said that one of the benefits to his office was that the conferences reduced the cases his office had to present to the grand jury. It also shortened the length of time victims and witnesses have had to be involved in the justice system, he said, since it has taken between six months and a year for felony cases to be resolved. It can take anywhere from a year to 18 months for trials to be held in felony cases.
A plea agreement is an integral part of making it work, he admitted in response to a colleague’s question.
“I do make my most attractive offer I’m ever going to make at the status conference, and I let the defendant know that,” Fowle said. “If the judge thinks I’ve made it too attractive, she tells me.”
Defendants may withdraw their guilty pleas when judges reject plea bargains.
Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, told the judges Tuesday that one of the reasons for the backlog in felony cases is the decrease in funding for jurors.
The presence of jurors puts pressure on the defendants and the prosecutors to reach a plea agreement and settle the case. The budget cuts, he said, mean jurors are called to court less frequently and cases drag on longer.