Lawmakers plowed through a huge number of bills last week to complete the work of a legislative session that was disrupted by the COVID pandemic.

At this writing, some of the most important financial proposals, including the supplemental budget and a plan to spend $1 billion in federal aid, were still under consideration. But we shouldn’t lose sight of several significant criminal justice bills that were passed in the House and Senate and are headed to the governor’s desk.

Closing the state’s last juvenile prison, eliminating the use of cash bail for minor crimes and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs would be major reforms that reflect years of hard work by activists and legislators as well as the best thinking of the experts in the field.

We encourage Gov. Mills to take a hard look at these bills and sign them into law, moving Maine in the right direction.

JUVENILE JUSTICE

Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland was built in the 1990s to house 200 boys and girls who have become entangled in the juvenile justice system.

Today, it holds only 25 adolescents, while the state still spends $18 million a year to keep it open. For reasons of efficiency alone, Long Creek should be shut down, but this is much more than a budget issue.

Young people are sent to the state’s most secure facility for youth not because they have been convicted of serious crimes, but because the state has nowhere else for them to go.

Two bills have passed the Legislature that would give Maine a path forward. L.D. 1668, sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, would require the Department of Corrections to produce a plan to close the facility and redirect its budget to community-based programs by 2023.

L.D. 546, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, addresses the same problem from the opposite direction. It requires the state to create two secure facilities with 24-hour staff for the small number of youths involved in the criminal justice system who represent a true threat to themselves or others, making the facility in South Portland unnecessary.

Most importantly, the bill would prohibit judges from sending a youth to prison simply because they don’t have any other options. It commits the state to ensuring that community-based programs exist, and when they do, Long Creek will be empty.

CASH BAIL

Another important bill, L.D. 1703, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would curtail the use of cash bail for minor crimes, a practice that fill county jails with people awaiting trial just because they can’t afford to get out.

With exceptions for people charged with sex offenses, domestic violence and failure to appear for a court date, people charged with Class E crimes – a category that includes trespassing, disorderly conduct and driving after suspension – would be released on personal recognizance as they await their day in court.

Pretrial jail time is a heavy burden on people who are presumed to be innocent. They can lose their jobs, housing or access to medical treatment while spending more time behind bars before trial than they would if they had been convicted of the charge. Cash bail means that this burden is borne only by people who can’t afford to pay.

Maine should curtail this unfair and wasteful practice.

DRUG POSSESSION

Of the many bills that have been passed to address the drug overdose epidemic in the last five years, L.D. 967 represents a break with the policies of the past that have been proven not to work. It has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Instead of treating possession of drugs as a crime, the bill sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, make it a civil violation, punished by a fine of up to $100, which could be waived for people who can’t pay if they agree to attend a medical screening.

For too long, the criminal justice system has been thought of as a gateway to treatment, with the threat of criminal penalties scaring people with substance use disorder into changing their lives.

Instead, these penalties disrupt the people’s lives and make their problems even harder to manage. Even though substance use disorder is recognized by science as a disease of the brain, our criminal code treats it as if it were a simple matter of choice.

With the overdose death toll continuing to rise, it’s time for Maine to try another strategy: one that offers treatment for everybody who wants it as well as harm reduction strategies that keep drug users alive until they are ready to address their addiction.

The Legislature has done important work this year under difficult circumstances.

Gov. Mills should do her part and sign these reforms into law.


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