Last week, legislators considered L.D. 1765, a proposal to create a commission that would examine and revise Maine’s criminal laws. This is an important opportunity for our state to evaluate the effectiveness, objectives and purpose of our criminal justice system.
Over the last 40 years, the United States has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the size and scope of our correctional system. The so-called War on Drugs and a proliferation of “tough on crime” policies have made ours the largest criminal justice system in the world. Even here in Maine, more than 10,000 people are under some form of correctional control.
Already, Maine’s criminal justice system costs taxpayers an estimated $160 million per year — not to mention the human cost of tearing apart families and depriving people of their liberty. Despite this considerable investment, statistics show that nearly 60 percent of those released from Maine prisons will be back behind bars within four years. Clearly, it is time to shift our focus from punishment to rehabilitation and successful re-entry into society.
With growing consensus around the failure of our criminal justice system, it is vital that the Legislature pass L.D. 1765. Once in place, the proposed commission would have the unique opportunity to survey the complete landscape of criminal justice in Maine and implement a fundamental re-alignment of our correctional priorities.
This can and should include rewriting the stated purposes behind our sentencing practices to include a greater focus on successful re-entry into our communities. This includes greater access to treatment, maintaining and encouraging offender ties with friends, families and community members, and more programs to equip offenders with the skills and resources they need to be successful law-abiding citizens. While deterrence remains an important part of every criminal justice system, public safety is best protected by focusing our corrections practices on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Further, the commission could examine our designated crimes and determine whether criminal sanctions are an appropriate response. During the last 40 years, Maine has seen a steady increase in the number of acts considered crimes; in the last legislative session alone, 24 bills were introduced to either create a new crime or enhance an existing criminal penalty.
Nowhere is this consideration more important than our failed drug laws. Since 1986, drug arrests in Maine have increased 238 percent, three-quarters of which are for simple possession. This uptick in drug arrests has done little or nothing to curb drug use, and Maine has seen a consistent rise in abuse. Considering that, we were alarmed when Gov. Paul LePage used his recent State of the State address to call for expanding Maine’s criminal justice system in response to this problem. Spending millions on more Drug Enforcement Agency agents, prosecutors and judges may put more people in jail, but it won’t do anything to address the heart of the addiction problem, which is first and foremost a public health issue and should be treated as such.
Finally, the commission could look at the length of sentences and their proportionality to the offenses. Since the dawn of the “tough on crime” era, mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing policies and three-strikes laws have sent people away for record amounts of time, with questionable benefits for public safety. Maine’s “Tina’s Law,” for example, added significant mandatory minimum sentences for repeat arrests of some drivers operating on a suspended license. Yet since its passage in 2006, the law appears to have had no significant impact on the rate of crashes involving drivers operating with suspended licenses.
Given the high cost and extensive consequences that flow from contact with the criminal justice system, we must resist the temptation to use it as a Band-Aid to address all societal problems. Instead, we should view correctional control as a severe sanction, to be utilized only when all other alternatives have been exhausted.
L.D. 1765 is a step in the right direction, although it is not perfect. Currently, the proposal would create a commission made up almost entirely of government actors plus one representative each of the state’s prosecutors and defense lawyers. To have the greatest benefit for our state, the bill should be amended to include an advocate for the rights of those directly affected by the criminal justice system.
It is time to improve the Maine criminal justice system to better serve individuals, families and our communities. Revising the criminal code with an eye toward realigning our priorities and reducing incarceration is a great way to start.
Grainne Dunne is justice organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.