What does Maine get out of its criminal justice system?

Right now, it largely punishes and marginalizes, and ignores rehabilitation. It grinds down humanity. It criminalizes mental illness and addiction. It is a profound waste of public resources, and it lacks the compassion that most people try to exhibit toward others in their own lives.

Yet it persists as it is, because most people can’t imagine doing things differently.

Thankfully, some can. Advocates pushed for years for an end to juvenile incarceration in Maine. Eventually, they changed minds – it now appears that once suitable community-based alternatives are identified and put in place, that’ll be the end of Long Creek Juvenile Detention Center, Maine’s only youth prison.

Where there were once more than 300 Maine children in lockup, there are now just a few dozen. In time, there may not be any. That’s progress – for the kids and their families, and for society, which should not be footing the bill for a system that does more harm than good.

Maine won’t be closing its adult prisons and jails any time soon. But there are opportunities to reshape the adult criminal justice system so that it brings better outcomes – for the people in the system, and for those that fund it.

Some of those opportunities will come up in the next legislative session. Two bills in particular point to problems in the criminal justice system, and offer good solutions.

One would raise the amount of narcotics considered simple possession, keeping people who have drugs solely for personal use from being charged with trafficking, which comes with higher penalties.

The bill passed last session, but Gov. Janet Mills has declined to sign it so far. Mills, who while attorney general opposed a law that turned simple possession from a felony into a misdemeanor, has argued before that sometimes it is necessary to hang a felony conviction over someone’s head in order to change their behavior.

That’s not an uncommon opinion for a prosecutor, but it doesn’t usually play out that way. More often, rather than turning one’s life around, a felony charge further ensnares them in a system not built to help them change. People whose only crime is satisfying their own addiction should be connected with treatment and other resources, not threatened with a long sentence.

Legislators will also deal with a bill that would make it easier for people to receive re-entry services following incarceration, a crucial step that the system is sorely lacking.

Beyond that, legislators can build on previous successes. A patchwork of community programs have been established to divert people from the criminal justice system to drug treatment. Treatment, not incarceration, should be the statewide rule.

And while the Mills administration moved quickly to open the way for drug treatment programs in state prisons, some county jails are resistant to implementing their own programs. Anything legislators can do to reverse that stance is welcome.

Every dollar we spend keeping someone incarcerated rather than dealing with the problems that got them there is a waste, for them and society in general. Every time the answer to crowded jails and prisons is more beds rather than fewer prisoners, it is a waste.

The criminal justice system is supposed to keep people safe and help violators become positive contributors to society.

Instead, it has become a warehouse where few lives are turned around, and where mental illness and substance use disorder are treated in the most expensive and least effective way possible.

We should expect much more.


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