AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers thought they had crafted a plan to address the backlog and the ongoing needs to investigate computer crimes in Maine. But, when a state police request for federal funding was rejected last month, that plan fell short and has triggered a major debate over state priorities for law enforcement
“I think this is a very high priority not only for the Appropriations Committee, it is a very high priority for the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and I think for the whole Legislature,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said he has no doubt the issue of addressing computer crimes, particularly those against children, are a top priority for the entire Legislature.
“We know there is no money around.” he said. “We will have to ask Public Safety to shift positions around and allocate more resources to these crimes. We have had to do it in the past, and we will do it again, I believe.”
Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, agreed that with state revenues down, there is no “extra” money to allocate for even the highest of priorities. He said the state has received some additional federal funds to address the issue, but few believe it is enough.
“There is an increase in the use of child pornography, we know that, we have to address that,” he said. “Over my years here in the Legislature, we have added staff but we know it has not been enough.”
In 2008, the unit has records of 43,530 instances of a video or pornographic pictures of children being downloaded somewhere in Maine. That was up from 14,951 instances in 2007. State police Sgt. Glenn Lang, the supervisor of unit, told lawmakers earlier this year the statistics are likely only the “tip of the iceberg” and in-clude very disturbing images.
Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan shares the high priority lawmakers have set on dealing with child pornography. She said anyone who has seen the images the computer crimes unit has to review as part of their investigation would be shocked.
“It’s so beyond the comprehension of the average Maine citizen,” she said. “If Maine citizens truly knew what was going on I would fear vigilante justice going on in the streets.”
She said the state did get a specific grant of $455,000 earlier this year under the Recovery Act that is providing for temporary staffing to assist in reducing the backlog. She is also pursuing other federal grants and said the U.S. Attorney for Maine, Paula Silsby, has nominated the state unit for funding under another federal pro-gram aimed at combating child pornography.
“We hope some additional funds will come through,” Jordan said.
But, she said, the Maine State Police do not have enough staff to do what they should be doing with many areas in the state without coverage for part of every day. She said there has not been an increase in the authorized number of troopers since 1994.
“We can’t continue to do all they have assigned us to do,” Jordan said.
She said diverting other resources as suggested by several lawmakers is a policy decision that will have to be made not only by her and the state police command staff, it also will involve the governor as well as the Legislature.
“What is it we won’t be able to do, what calls will not be responded to,” she said. “We cannot do everything that is asked of us now.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the dilemma facing Jordan and the Department of Public Safety is a microcosm of the budget crisis facing all of state government.
“This situation is exactly the conversation that we are going to be having with every single policy committee the Legislature has and with every department head,” she said. “We will have to set new priorities as revenues are less.”
Cain said she understands Jordan’s frustration with more demands than resources to meet the demands, but she said that is not unique to the Department of Public Safety. She said as the committee seeks to find millions of dollars in cuts to offset reduced revenues, every agency will be asked to rethink what they do and how they do it.