As people across the nation tuned in to the speech by Attorney General Eric Holder last week, it may have been easy for Mainers to tune out. After all, Mr. Holder’s topic was the bloated federal prison system, but here in Maine we have the lowest incarceration rate in the country. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. America has more people in prison per capita than anywhere else in the world. And even in Maine, we incarcerate people at a higher rate than most European countries.
More than 9,000 people are under some form of correctional control in Maine, and many more carry criminal records, with disastrous consequences for their ability to find work and housing. It’s time for Mainers to demand something better.
Mr. Holder announced that the rampant use of incarceration in this country is “ineffective and unsustainable,” with a massive price tag and severe “human and moral costs.” He directed all federal prosecutors to stop charging mandatory minimums in low-level drug cases. He called for increased compassionate release for elderly prisoners and increased diversion programs. Most importantly, he gave a powerful indictment of the entire incarceration system, saying, “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”
We could not agree more. Our criminal justice system is a heavy-handed, ineffective tool for solving many of the problems that we throw at it.
Here in Maine, too many children are growing up visiting their mother or father in jail or prison. Even after people have served their sentence, they routinely experience employment discrimination, are denied access to public housing and other benefits, and are ineligible for federal student aid. These barriers make successful re-entry into society all the more challenging — increasing the likelihood that people will remain caught in the criminal justice maze.
Moreover, in this time of financial shortfalls, the state of Maine spends $160 million in taxpayer money a year on Corrections — money that could be used on education, economic development, roads and bridges.
Worse still, unfair disparities exist in the way our justice system is applied. For example, according to statistics gathered by the federal government from the states and recently reported by the National ACLU, black people in Maine are more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts, which is shocking given research showing that blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.
We need to respond to social harms like drug abuse and addiction in a way that protects our communities. In the vast majority of cases, prison is not the sensible, effective, or efficient response. Since the mid-’80s, drug-related arrests in Maine have increased drastically, to nearly 6,000 in 2010. Yet despite the constant uptick in arrests, the so-called “War on Drugs” has done little to decrease drug use. As the New York Times reported, a recent surge in heroin use in New England has resulted in a threefold increase in death by overdose. It is time to acknowledge that the War on Drugs isn’t working. While this “war” has been a war on families and a war on budgets, it certainly hasn’t beaten back its stated target. If we want to solve problems, we should get to the root of them, not lock them up and try to forget them.
Overcoming our reliance on incarceration will require us to think differently about criminal justice. In the last legislative session, 24 bills were introduced either creating a new crime or increasing an existing criminal penalty. Given the devastating consequences the current system has on communities, families and individuals, it is time to rethink our tendency to use incarceration and corrections as the first means of addressing societal problems. While certain behaviors may be detrimental, so is simply locking people up. As a state, it’s time to view contact with the criminal justice system as a severe sanction to be utilized only when all other alternatives have been exhausted.
Mr. Holder’s speech challenges us to think about how we can manage our criminal justice system more responsibly, using practical, evidence-based alternatives to our expensive and destructive prisons and jails, and considering whether we want to subject so many people to felony convictions for less serious crimes. We in Maine can do better.
Grainne Dunne is the criminal justice organizer at the ACLU of Maine.