Add this to the many and varied reasons Maine is such a great place to call home: Among all the states in the nation, we have the fewest people per capita behind bars.

It’s buried deep inside “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013,” a bulletin released last month by the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the report, Maine incarcerated an estimated 3,800 ne’er-do-wells in state or county lockups in 2013, which translates into 350 people per 100,000 of the state’s population.

How good is that? Well, the average for all 50 states is 830 inmates per 100,000 citizens. And if you check in on places like Louisiana (1,420), Oklahoma (1,300) and Mississippi (1,270), you’ll find those folks lock their criminals away at well over three times the rate we do here.

Part of Maine’s best-in-the-nation status (or worst, depending on which end of the criminal-justice telescope you prefer) could be attributed to who we are. Since we’re the oldest state in the nation, for example, one might surmise that with maturity comes wisdom and with wisdom comes the good sense to refrain from behavior that can land you in the slammer.

Or maybe it’s because Maine is consistently rated the most peaceful state, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual U.S. Peace Index. With peace comes serenity and with serenity comes fewer felonies, no?

But most of all, it appears Maine has fewer inmates because, for the last decade or so in particular, we’ve been working with admirable diligence to keep non-dangerous people out of jail.

“I think in Maine, we’ve been much more progressive around criminal justice policy and sentencing practices than we give ourselves credit for,” state Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said in an interview Friday.

How so?

“I think some of the other states are really punitive,” he said. “They have a philosophy of retribution as opposed to rehabilitation. And whether or not we meet that aspirational goal here in Maine, I think there’s a consensus that (rehabilitation) is the purpose of corrections.”

Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, served in 2004 on Maine’s Commission to Improve the Sentencing, Supervision, Management and Incarceration of Prisoners. The high-powered group of judges, attorneys, lawmakers and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system spent months studying Maine’s penal system and ways to head off what back then was a skyrocketing increase in state and county jail populations.

To this day, Dion said, many of the commission’s 61 recommendations are, at best, works in progress. But a couple have made a real difference.

One is a steady reduction in the number of people – especially those with low incomes – who languish in jail for weeks and months before trial simply because they can’t afford bail. Today, many of those individuals not deemed dangerous are released to the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services, which keeps track of them until their court date.

Noted Dion: “We were paying more than $100 a day to hold someone who could be managed for a few dollars.”

At the post-conviction end of the legal process, Maine now relies increasingly on the “deferred disposition” strategy – again for those whose crime doesn’t translate into a threat to public safety.

Put simply, after the offender pleads guilty to the crime, the judge defers imposition of the sentence for a set amount of time. If the criminal abides by the court’s conditions during that deferral period – often including ongoing treatment of substance-abuse problems – the conviction is then dropped and the offender is free to get on with his or her life.

Dion, now a private attorney, always makes it a point to remind such people how lucky they are.

“When I have a client like that, I go, ‘This is where you get to meet Jesus. You’ve talked to Jesus, now we’re going to meet him,'” he said.

So how is Maine doing with its albeit modest correctional system more than a decade after it resolved to keep things from bursting at the seams?

“We can do better. And I believe we’ve got a system in place that can do better. But it’s going to require funding,” said Joel Merry, sheriff of Sagadahoc County and chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections.

Merry is the first to agree that “there are some people who belong in jail. You need to have jails to keep society safe. We know that.”

But the key to rehabilitation versus simple punishment, he said, is what happens to those people – or not – once the cell door slams shut.

According to census reports submitted each day to the Board of Corrections from Maine’s 14 county jails (the daily head counts were another of the commission’s recommendations), Maine averaged 1,830 county inmates in 2014. Add to that the 2,247 adult inmates in the state correctional system for the just-completed year and you get roughly 4,077 adults currently incarcerated throughout Maine – a noticeable uptick over the approximately 3,800 reported by the feds for 2013.

Why the increase?

From where Merry sits, it begins and ends with money. Maine’s county jail system, while consistently operating above its budgeted capacity of 1,814 inmates per day, actually has 120 empty beds spread out among three of its newer jails because, Merry notes, “we don’t have the money to staff them.”

Nor, Merry said, are Maine taxpayers all that excited these days about rehabilitation programs inside correctional facilities. Propose cutting a high school basketball team from a local school budget and you get a public insurrection, he noted, but take the scalpel to a prison’s drug-abuse or sex-offender program and you’re lucky to get a communal yawn.

“If you want to believe in rehabilitation and getting these people fixed, that is the time to do it – while they’re incarcerated,” Merry said. “But nobody cares. You’re going to lose that argument every time.”

In other words, while Maine leads the nation in not sending people to jail, we’re not sufficiently interested in what happens to the relative few who end up there?

“I would say your assumption is absolutely correct,” Merry said. “We need to do better.”

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