The recent state election showed that voters want to bring change to the State House, and that naturally brings up the question of what kind of change they are seeking. Certainly, they were acting in response to the gridlock and obstruction that was a frequent method of the outgoing administration — whether concerning the Medicaid expansion overwhelmingly approved by the voters, or the hundreds of gubernatorial vetoes, even on uncontroversial legislation advanced with strong bipartisan support.

We now have an opportunity for clearing the air, and testing what a renewed state government can do in the public interest. It is a path not to be missed. And one issue that I’ve worked on for two decades — criminal justice reform — is more timely than ever. As a former law enforcement officer, three-term county sheriff and four-term legislator, I should say first that Maine’s laws are well-administered. We have many outstanding judges, prosecutors, state, county and local police officers, county jail administrators, and private defense attorneys. Maine has one of the lowest incarceration rates of any state, and many of us enjoy a quality of life and public order that results from efforts to enforce those laws.

Yet simply administering existing law is not enough. Achieving justice for all involves a moral responsibility to shape and evolve our collective sense of public safety. If you ask the disenfranchised, the marginalized and members of our minority communities about whether the legal system fully achieves justice, many would say it does not. They sense that things are simply not fair, that their treatment by the system would somehow be less equitable than what others might experience. That mistrust diminishes their respect for the very institutions intended to protect their interests, and those of their families. I have seen the law from all angles and perspectives. And I know there is much more we can do to serve those who now lack confidence in our criminal justice system.

My tenure as Cumberland County sheriff, overseeing a 600-inmate correctional facility, made some things crystal clear. Rarely was there an inmate from the more well-to-do zip codes. Most came from within a few miles of the jail in Portland. Most were poor. Many were illiterate. Most had mental illnesses, often paired with substance abuse disorders. A relatively high proportion of detainees were from minority communities. Many were held in custody because they couldn’t pay bail, and frankly had no home to go to.

The opportunity for change and substantive reform is before us. Here are just some of the challenges we face: How can we reform the bail process so that it that lowers the pre-trial population in our county jails without sacrificing the integrity of the court process? How can we intervene to treat substance abuse disorders and mental health as public health challenges and not crimes? How can we provide judges necessary flexibility to recognize individual circumstance in pronouncing a sentence? How can we create a juvenile justice system that ensures that adolescents are held accountable without tearing families apart? How can we design policies and process that restore victims in the wake of personal trauma and loss following a criminal event?

Finally, how can we administratively expunge non-violent misdemeanors from criminal records — sealing a record that often casts a shadow on the otherwise law-abiding standing of many mature adults in our communities? By addressing these challenges, we can create better outcomes that enhance justice for our citizens and non-citizens alike beyond the traditional expectations for public safety that arise from faithful obedience to the law.

The next attorney general for Maine should champion criminal justice reform. We do need to administer the system with integrity and efficiency, as is our long and laudable tradition — but progressive reform efforts are needed if we are to realize justice for everyone.

Maine has long led the nation on many liberal public safety measures, from our historical decision to abolish the death penalty to our most recent referendum supporting the legalization of marijuana. The Legislature is now poised to lead the nation in a renewed effort toward achieving social justice. Martin Luther King once said “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” It’s time for Maine and her leaders to get ahead of the curve.

Mark Dion is a former legislator and sheriff. He is currently a candidate for attorney general.

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