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USM researchers complete first-of-its-kind study on rising use of alternative sentencing program in Maine

An alternative sentencing program used by courts to keep Mainers out of jail has become increasingly popular in recent years, according to a first-of-its-kind study from researchers at the University of Southern Maine. 

Cases of deferred disposition, which give defendants the chance to earn reduced or dismissed sentences, rose 12.8% from 2014 to 2017. This finding comes from the recently released report, “Use of Deferred Dispositions in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases in Maine.”  

“A deferred disposition typically involves the accused pleading guilty to a charge and agreeing to meet certain conditions over a period of time, commonly one year,” said George Shaler, a co-author of the report and the director of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at USM. If those conditions are subsequently met, the cases are either dismissed or the defendants are found guilty of lesser crimes than the ones with which they were originally charged. If the terms are not met, defendants are convicted of the charges to which they pled guilty, saving the court system the time and expense of a trial. The rising numbers included successful cases as well as those in which the defendants failed to fulfill the program’s requirements.

It’s an important program for prosecutors, said Andrew Robinson, the district attorney for Maine’s Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

“Deferred dispositions are an important tool used by prosecutors to hold offenders accountable by requiring them to engage in treatment along with other conditions,” Robinson said. “If the offender is unsuccessful, the state can still proceed with the more traditional sentencing alternatives available under the criminal code.”

The research behind this report was conducted by the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at USM’s Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy with the cooperation of the Maine Coalition Sexual Against Assault (MECASA) and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV).  The goal of the research, the first of its kind in Maine, was to explore the impact of deferred disposition in terms of future criminal activity, especially among those charged with domestic violence and sex offenses.

To measure the impact, researchers examined the characteristics of 18,357 deferred dispositions that were granted from 2014 to 2019 and were either successfully or unsuccessfully completed.  (Some of the deferred dispositions granted during this study were still active and not included in the analysis, and some records were not included because the defendants were younger than 18 at the time at the time of deferral.)  Data for this study were obtained from the Maine District Attorneys Technical Services (MEDATS), the electronic repository for Maine district attorney data, and include variables related to deferral as well as prior and subsequent cases. Because the database is specific to Maine, any prior or subsequent cases that occurred elsewhere were not captured in their study. 

According to the study’s findings, just under one-fifth (19%) of all deferral cases contained a domestic violence charge.  Francine Garland Stark, Executive Director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence responds to this finding, saying “While MCEDV is not necessarily opposed to the use of deferred disposition in some domestic violence cases, we do feel that these defendants should be monitored to ensure compliance with all conditions associated with their release to protect the safety of those they are alleged to have victimized.”

Some of the findings in the study varied by district, including the frequency with which the disposition is used.  With 4,154 cases, Prosecutorial District 1 (York County), had the highest number of deferrals during the study period.  This number, however, reflects the relatively high number of court cases in that district.  To look at the frequency with which deferrals were used within each district, rates were calculated using regional caseload statistics from 2017.  At 4.7%, the highest rate among districts was observed in District 6 (Know, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo).

Data from the study show that almost half of all deferred cases (49%) had subsequent cases.  “The majority of these were misdemeanor or civil cases, while the remaining 30% were felony cases,”  said co-author Robyn Dumont, a research associate with the Justice Policy Program at USM.

In summary, Shaler explained, “The report’s findings suggest deferred disposition can work for some defendants.  That said, to achieve a higher success rate the justice system should provide some monitoring to ensure defendants are adhering to deferred disposition agreement conditions.”

The full report can be found at:  https://justiceresearch.usm.maine.edu/