NAMI Maine stands firm in our respect for the dignity and worth of all and in our urgent call for concrete actions to address systemic racism within Maine’s criminal justice system. As an entity that has been deeply involved in criminal justice system reform and law enforcement training for over two decades, we believe it is critical that demands for reform produce meaningful change.

NAMI Maine is calling for increased investments in community supports capable of meeting the needs of individuals living with mental illness, substance use disorders and homelessness. Past legislative attempts to adequately fund “housing first” programs, comprehensive recovery services, a first-responder model of mobile crisis response, mental health diversion centers, forensic inpatient beds, as well as probation and bail reform, have sat in Augusta despite our collective efforts and those of other advocacy voices to advance these sound investments in our community-based social service system.

We stand firm in our calls to end the criminalization of individuals living with mental illness, substance use disorders or experiencing homelessness. Without community resource, the criminal justice system becomes the service provider for those in need. Between 40-70% of the population of Maine’s jails are struggling to get appropriate mental health/substance use treatment and seven out 10 people shot by law enforcement in the state of Maine were known to have a mental health need.

Responsibility for the criminalization of mental illness and substance use disorders falls first on elected leaders who have failed to fund a comprehensive mental health system with multiple levels of care to meet the needs of each person and then hold providers accountable to work with more challenging patients. Community-oriented police departments have pleaded with NAMI Maine to get them resources where they can divert people with behavioral health needs. With a recognition that they aren’t social workers, law enforcement leaders have strongly supported and advocated for legislative efforts to build a functional mental health system in Maine.

Building a functional system alone will not address the racial bias and stigma that is so commonly held within systems and individuals across our society. These attitudes fuel a destructive and dehumanizing approach to policing by some. However, calls to defund the police rather than to reframe the role of policing will not produce much-needed results.

When Maine’s mental health system was gutted, the resources did not go to law enforcement. Maine does not have a high number of police officers, but we do have a great divide between progressive leaders and those individuals fueled by discriminatory attitudes. As we build a mental health system, we must also mandate significant changes such as mandating community policing, include community members in the hiring process of police, and interjecting other professionals into the training and accountability mechanisms of law enforcement. Over the past 20 years, we have trained thousands of Maine officers and know with certainty that all police officers are not the same and lumping them together fails to recognize the profound contributions that good police make to our communities.

We are calling on our elected leaders to fund a comprehensive and best practice continuum of services capable of ensuring that social service professionals respond to people in need and law enforcement is called upon to respond only to public safety issues.

Amy Hodgdon, board president of NAMI Maine, submitted this column on behalf of NAMI Maine’s board of directors.


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