ELLSWORTH — Two years ago, Mark Green, the director of Downeast Community Partners, got a call from the Hancock County Jail.
One of his employees, a young woman with an elementary school-aged son, had been arrested in her home for an unpaid fine. As a result of a long-running court case, she had trouble keeping up with her bills.
“This is a woman without much means but a very good person,” Green recalled. “We went down to the jail, bailed her out, paid her fines, she paid us back … If we had not been in the line of work we’re in, I suspect she would have lost her job.”
Green recalled the case while discussing the effects of the criminal justice system on poor or struggling communities. His agency — which at the time of the arrest was known as the Washington Hancock Community Agency — focuses on “helping low-income and at-risk residents thrive,” according to its website.
He said lingering court cases can become a burden for people living in poverty because a small fine can mean the difference between feeding your children or not. Unlike the unpaid utility bills or credit card statements, an unpaid court bill can land someone in jail.
“It’s obviously one more barrier for people who are trying to improve their lives,” Green said.
Hancock County Court Clerk Terry Harding said she couldn’t speak on the record about the issue and referred questions to Julia Finn, a communications and legal analyst for the state court system.
Finn said drawn-out court cases can occur for a variety of reasons. It can be difficult to pin down any one issue. Sometimes mental health issues delay cases, she said, or if the case is a felony, there can be more pieces involved in issuing a verdict. Sometimes experts are called in to provide testimony, or an outside agency is processing information and the court has to wait.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789, guarantees the right to a speedy trial. Finn said they do what they can to expedite cases, but wasn’t aware of internal data that tracked how long cases continued before being adjudicated.
“A lot of times there’s a really good reason for a continuance,” she said, using the legal term for a court deciding to take more time on a matter.
Another issue that can delay court processes is discovery, Finn said, which is when each side of a criminal proceeding can request information from the other party.
But another key issue — one facing Hancock County defendants and court administrators at the Ellsworth building — is space. With only one Superior Court room in Ellsworth, Finn said the administration of justice can be slowed down because there’s only room for one proceeding at a time.
According to Darlene Springer, a member of the Ellsworth Historical Society’s board of directors, the building was constructed originally in either 1886 or 1887. There was a destructive fire in 1930 and the court was rebuilt into the structure that’s used today.
The Maine court system has plans to renovate and rebuild outdated structures across the state, but Finn said Hancock County’s building can’t be updated too soon. At the moment, a new courthouse in Belfast is being built, and after that, York County’s will be reconstructed.
The old courts are rich with history of communities across Maine. Finn said they’re interesting places that capture the spirit of their eras. But the standards for criminal justice have changed, and there are new needs for justice facilities, she said.
“The older courthouses, the standards for security are so different,” she said. “Everybody was in the lobby.”
It’s not just population that informs their decisions on when to build a new courthouse, according to Finn, though she said she couldn’t speak to the formal selection process. It can be the age of the building, among other factors.
“You can’t do that all at once,” Finn said. “That has to be on a kind of graduated schedule … it takes time and money.”
For Green, one of the big challenges with court proceedings is less physical in nature.
“The thing that bothers me so much is that there aren’t people out there to help folks with advice,” he said.
In the case of the staff member who was battling court fines, Green said he felt the judge — while likely well-qualified — didn’t understand what the woman was up against.
“I didn’t feel he had any sensitivity to this woman’s particular situation,” he said. “As we were going to the hearing, he lectured her on the need to pay her bills … Yeah, that’s true and something we should all do, but I don’t think he had any idea what kind of situation she was up against.”
Lengthy court cases can prolong these types of costs, compounding legal and financial troubles. For Green, everyday problems with money can be an inconvenience. But for those living in poverty, he said, the unexpected costs can have dire consequences.
“I remember when I was very young, having just to buy a couple of tires or an exhaust pipe would throw a monkey wrench in my plans,” Green said. “I think that’s exacerbated for people who are living in poverty and don’t have an income to cover the necessities in life.
“Imagine being in that situation and really no way out, and it being a perpetual situation day after day.”