‘Overdue’ overhaul of Maine criminal laws could be delayed by price tag

Posted Dec. 04, 2013, at 4:13 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 04, 2013, at 5:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The monumental and, as some say, overdue task of overhauling the laws around crime in Maine began to unfold Wednesday around the central question of “how monumental should the task be?”

The undertaking, which was authorized earlier this year by the Legislature, is potentially so big that a 12-person committee of lawmakers and legal experts called the Criminal Code Revision Planning Committee, which met Wednesday, was formed solely to create the Criminal Code Revision Commission, the body that will actually do the work. The review could include everything from making sure sentences for crimes are appropriate to possibly redefining some infractions from criminal to civil violations. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who co-chairs the planning committee, said a large-scale review of Maine’s crime laws hasn’t been done in almost 40 years.

But with no funding in place and well more than 900 crimes to sort through in addition to a range of other issues that affect the judiciary, sentencing and Department of Corrections, how the task will unfold remains uncertain. A central question Wednesday was whether the revisions should be focused on the Maine Criminal Code — which includes crimes that typically result in fines or jail time, which are defined in Title 17A of Maine law — or all Maine laws ranging from hunting and fishing violations to professional licensing guidelines, which are spread throughout the Maine Revised Sta tutes.

Members of the committee asked the all-volunteer Criminal Law Advisory Commission, or CLAC, whose job is to advise the Legislature on technical matters, if it would be willing to take a lead role in the project. John Pelletier, chairman of the commission, said that’s impossible.

“I’m told that there are 900 crimes in Maine outside the criminal code,” said Pelletier to the committee on Wednesday. “[Working through all those crimes and making recommendations to the Legislature] certainly would not be a task that CLAC would undertake because that is a massive task. There is skepticism on our panel that any group could do that but we’re clear that we cannot.”

District Court Judge Charles LaVerdiere, who is a member of the committee, suggested tackling the larger task of reviewing all laws and statutes but spreading the review over the course of several years, starting with the criminal code. He said one of his concerns as a judge is ensuring that the judicial branch’s time is used efficiently.

“I was sitting on the bench yesterday doing some criminal work,” said LaVerdiere. “I did five or six cases in which there were criminal infractions of a very serious nature. Then came a case where someone had caught too many fish over the limit. That was a criminal offense. It struck me that I’m not sure that we’ve always gotten it right in terms of where our priorities as a society are on what should be a crime as opposed to what should be a civil offense.”

From there, the conversation shifted to whether a consultant or consulting firm should be sought to guide the process, though the expense was a major factor. Some suggested seeking grant funding from a federal source, which Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, a member of the committee, opposed.

“The problem with applying for a grant is that the tail wags the dog,” she said. “You have to fit what you want to do in these little silos that are available for grant funding. If at all possible I would like to remain completely independent of any kind of bullying from a grant source, and I think we can do it.”

Gerzofsky, who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the legislation that created it, said he favors asking the Legislature for an appropriation out of the General Fund, possibly one that would be spread over multiple years. He told the Bangor Daily News that he is already working on securing that funding, which he estimated could climb well in excess of $100,000.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, another member of the committee, expressed concern with the cost and suggested limiting the scope of the project.

“If we go too big we know now that we have no funding source,” said Wilson. “The bigger we go, the more staff we need and the more hours it will take. It’s going to drive the cost and make it more difficult to get this through the Legislature.”

Anderson said some things are worth paying for and that the review under discussion is long overdue.

“We can’t really do everything on the cheap,” she said. “If this is important then we just need to find the money.”

The planning committee is scheduled to bring recommendations to the full Legislature by March 1, 2014.

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