Especially for a state small in population, Maine has a powerful and wide-ranging state government. For reasons dating back through two centuries of statehood, Maine has never developed robust county governments, as most states have, and municipal government is divided into nearly 500 separate jurisdictions — hardly a formula for political clout.

Most debates about policy naturally gravitate to the Legislature, which has an even more staggering stack of bills than usual this year. This is not always a good way to make policy.

State governments experiment with new approaches that are often a model for legislation ultimately adopted by Congress. That’s the genius of federalism, our chosen path to guiding an enormous and still-growing nation. At least in theory, innovation in Maine could similarly “bubble up” from the local level.

It’s heartening, then, that Kennebec County is experimenting with some criminal justice reforms that have the potential to limit the tragic consequences of our collective decision to use mass incarceration as the response to rising crime rates in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “Getting tough on crime” and “lock ’em up” were consensus policies by the 1990s, as eagerly promoted by Democrats as Republicans — in Maine, too, just as in better-remembered acts of Congress.

During the 1980s, the Legislature doubled the statutory sentences for class A crimes, under the dubious theory that judges had suddenly become too lenient. It abolished parole for any future offenses, and saddled probation officers with impossible caseloads, meaning newly released inmates got almost no attention until they were arrested again and sent back to jail.

The result? Even though Maine has one of the nation’s lowest overall crime rates, its prison and jail population doubled, and has continued to increase.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is having some important debates this year, and — at long last — we may be moving away from the “lock ’em up” fixation and toward something that can reasonably be called reform.

Yet things move slowly at the State House. A comprehensive, high-level study of our approaches to crime, punishment and rehabilitation —  the first in decades — may be the most that can be achieved this year.

That’s why the initiative announced by District Attorney Maeghan Maloney is so important. With the support of Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason and Superior Court Justice Michela Murphy, who regularly presides here, Maloney wants to overhaul the cash bail system, which now keeps many indigent offenders in jail longer that the crimes for which they are charged would warrant, even if ultimately found guilty.

The county jail is also planning medicated-assisted treatment for inmates with substance use issues — these days, a majority. By contrast, in Aroostook County it recently took a federal judge to order similar treatment, a verdict just upheld by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

It’s not surprising that different counties take varying approaches to drug-dependent inmates — but we should know which approaches actually work, measured by the number who re-offend after being released, or, concerning bail, how many show up for trial.

In Kennebec County, the numbers are encouraging. Last year, of those deemed “low risk” and released without paying cash bail, only three failed to appear — 99 percent compliance. This suggests that “personal recognizance” bail could be used far more widely than it is.

One might well wonder why bail fees — which seem relatively low for misdemeanor offenses — present such an obstacle for many now locked up. Two generations ago, those arrested for crimes generally had someone — a friend, family, or community member — to “bail them out.”

Today, the number of homeless, drug-dependent, unattached adults, many with serious mental health issues, has soared. To deny this is simply to deny reality.

Unfortunately, our criminal justice system doesn’t change with the times unless we make it change. Often, the inertia of current law overcomes proposals for change, however sensible they might be.

“Lock ’em up” was a particularly bad answer to the societal problems created by excessive drug use, both of the legal and illegal varieties. The Mills administration seems to have opted decisively for treatment first, and not incarceration, but translating that intent into policy is going to be a long, hard fight.

So the Kennebec County experiment has the potential to become a model for the way the state shapes its laws in the years ahead.

And who knows? We might even discover that county government could play a useful role as a regional agency between the better-funded, and more widely respected, state and municipal levels. In the Maine context, that would not be just evolutionary, but revolutionary.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. His latest book is Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine, and he welcomes comment at [email protected] 

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