Consider a few facts.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Maine has a higher incarceration rate than Canada. It has a higher rate than the countries of France, Italy and Belgium combined.

Sixty to 85% of prisoners struggle with alcohol or substance use disorder. The number of drug-related offenders sent to prison has increased every year since 2014. Yet Maine lacks a sufficient number of treatment facilities. Last year, overdoses caused the deaths of 502 Mainers, the highest number in a decade.

Black people make up less than 2% of the state population, but 5% of all arrests, 11% of the state’s prison population, 21% of class A drug arrests, and 23% of juveniles incarcerated at Long Creek Center in South Portland, the youth facility within the Department of Corrections. Maine will spend over $600,000 per youth per year to keep youths in custody at the Long Creek.

Of the 80,000 calls to 911 in the city of Portland in 2019, only 3% resulted in arrest. Most calls are reports of homelessness, family disputes or mental health calls. Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who runs the Cumberland County Jail, repeatedly says that he is running the largest mental health facility in the state. He’s referring to the jail. Let that sink in for a minute.

These are not facts that make Mainers proud. Maine people are compassionate.  We believe in effective and efficient government. We want to help people who are struggling. During the 1998 ice storm, Maine became one big neighborhood, sharing generators to keep our pipes thawed and our freezers frozen. Mainers help their neighbors. We don’t believe in locking up our neighbors because they are in the grips of a disease or a mental health issue.

But the sad fact is that this is our policy. We talk about compassion. We say we cannot arrest our way out of the problem.

But our behavior, our state policies, our state budget, pays for a system that identifies those who are struggling with substance use disorder, encourages them to tell on their friends, arrests and sends them to jail and prison. It is a cruel system. It is an utter failure. It is a total waste of taxpayer money.

Yet every year we put more money into this approach. The definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

On Monday, March 1, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed state budget for corrections and public safety. The question before the Legislature is simple: Are we going to continue this insanity?  Or are we going to put our money where our values are?

Budgets reflect values. If your family spends a lot on donations to a church or mosque or synagogue, it reflects your religious values. If you spend a lot of money on outdoor equipment, it reflects your sense of adventure. If you spend a lot on fixing up your truck or snowmobile — well then, you’re probably just a Mainer.

The same principle applies to state budgets. Our state budget describes us as a people. The proposed budget includes $14 million over two years for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. This is double the spending of 10 years ago.

In the last decade, we’ve spent over $47 million funding Drug Enforcement Agents and you still find any drug you want anywhere in Maine at any time of day. None of this spending has been shown to have any effect, other than driving up our incarceration rates.

But the things that do influence substance use disorder — and save our neighbor’s lives — are not being sufficiently funded. Yet there is $37 million for Long Creek. Long Creek currently has a population of 28 youth and 175 staff. Those figures add up to over $600,000 per youth per year. Insanity.

It’s time to change. It’s time to admit that the so-called “War on Drugs” is in fact just a war on our friends and neighbors. It’s time to admit failure in our public policy.

It’s time to try something different. I hope this is the message the Appropriations Committee hears on Monday.

Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is in her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives, where she is chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.


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