If you’re having trouble with something – car repairs, a bad cold or any other everyday problem – the best advice is usually to “ask the experts.”

Politicians trying to improve our criminal justice system should do the same, and as a 32-year veteran of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, let me say clearly: We need to rethink who we incarcerate, how and why. The time has come for comprehensive criminal justice reform.

Our current federal criminal justice policies aren’t working. Our prisons are overcrowded, and our recidivism rates are far too high. Today, one in 110 adults in this country is behind bars, and the vast majority of people who are released from prison eventually end up back there. For decades, we have been spending massive amounts of taxpayer dollars – and finite law enforcement resources – on practices and on unnecessary incarceration that clearly does not stop the cycle of crime. To me, and many leaders in law enforcement, it is obvious that something needs to change.

WRONG APPROACH TO OPIOID CRIMES

I have dedicated over 32 years of my life to public safety here in Maine. From that experience, I know that incarceration cannot be our default response to all crime. Harsh sentencing laws mean that all too often, people convicted of nonviolent and low-level crimes end up behind bars, where they could get worse, not better. This is especially true of people struggling with opioid addictionsomething our state knows all too well.

Incarceration simply will not solve the underlying issues that cause them to come into conflict with the law. All it achieves is a revolving door in our county jails and prisons and the draining of resources away from confronting more serious crime and actually dealing with the opioid epidemic.

So how do we fix it? We need to address the root of the problem. We must rethink who we’re sending to prison in the first place – and for how long – and ensure that resources are in place to help people coming out of incarceration stay on track and remain out of jail. That will enable law enforcement to concentrate on the most dangerous threats to our communities. In 2016, Maine recognized this problem and made legislative efforts focused on sentencing reforms for low-level drug possession to increase rehabilitation. This policy effort would continue the improving trend from 2010 to 2015, in which our imprisonment rate fell by 10 percent, and our crime rate dropped by 25 percent.

BRINGING REFORMS TO WASHINGTON

I am not alone in my belief that common-sense criminal justice reforms will make us safer. I am joined by members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration – a group uniting over 200 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors from every state in the nation. Every day, we are on the front lines of fighting crime, and we have seen the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in the criminal justice system firsthand. That is why we have encouraged Washington to reform outdated, unfair sentencing policies and pass prison reforms that will end the vicious cycle of crime.

And Washington has started to listen. Sen. Angus King is a co-sponsor of a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would take essential steps to fix mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes while also improving programing inside prisons to stop the cycle of recidivism. Just last month, President Trump signaled his support for including key sentencing reform measures from that bill within the prison reform legislation his administration is spearheading through Congress.

There is finally momentum behind these urgently needed reforms. With the president’s endorsement, I hope more leaders from Maine, like Sen. Susan Collins, will stand with Maine to support federal sentencing and prison reforms in Congress. The evidence against the status quo is clear, and today comprehensive federal criminal justice is finally within reach. All that is left is for our elected representatives to do is choose the right path toward it. It is good to get tough on crime, but we need to get “smarter” on how we deal with it, too.

— Special to the Press Herald