May 27, 2020
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Too many people incarcerated in ‘debtors prison,’ de facto mental health wards

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Inmate jumpsuits are seen at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor Feb. 12.

Now that lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage have found a short-term fix to the county jails funding problems, they can turn their attention to the underlying cause. Maine, like other states, has jails that are over capacity, not because crime is on the rise, but because too many people are incarcerated for too long.

The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In the name of being “tough on crime,” we have rounded up the poor, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted and housed them in jails and prisons — at high cost.

In 1983, about 6.4 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population had a serious mental illness. Today, that figure is at least triple. A 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center found 16 percent of jail and prison inmates had a serious mental illness.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2006 that 1.3 million mentally ill adults were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails.

The result, for the criminal justice system, is that some county jails that are bursting at the seams, straining budgets and jail staff. In 2008, former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration proposed a state takeover of county jails. After much opposition, the state established a coordinated system overseen by a new Board of Corrections. That system was on the verge of breakdown this month, with several sheriffs saying they would have to let prisoners go if they didn’t get more funding for their jails. Frustrated by the dysfunctional system, Gov. Paul LePage refused to make required appointments to the Board of Corrections, so it could not meet.

Late last week, lawmakers reached an agreement to provide an additional $2.5 million in funding for the jails, while putting them under the supervision of new Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick.

This problem is far from solved, but lawmakers have given themselves some breathing room, which they should use to look at the underlying problem of why there are so many inmates in the county jail system.

There is good news: Maine has the lowest adult incarceration rate per capita in the nation. In 2011, Maine’s rate of 147 inmates per 100,000 adult residents was the lowest in the country and more than three times lower than the national average of 492 per 100,000 residents.

However, while the crime rate has fallen substantially, the number of offenders held in Maine’s county jails more than doubled from 1993 to 2011, driven by mandatory sentences and an increase in offenders choosing jail time to lessen their fines, which are often a mixture of court fees and financial penalties for breaking the law. Both have been on the increase in recent years to fill state coffers.

Arrests for drug crimes rose by more than 8 percent between 2003 and 2012, according to the 2014 Maine Crime and Justice Databook. Most of the increase was attributable to drug possession. Arrests for sales and manufacturing declined during that time. About half the possession arrests in 2012 involved marijuana. Arrests for possession of synthetic narcotics are on the rise.

Possession of any quantity of some drugs (one pill of OxyContin without a prescription, for example) is a felony crime in Maine, punishable by up to five years in prison. As a result, many defendants stay in jail (especially if they are poor and can’t afford bail) as they seek a plea deal with a lesser sentence or work to fight the charges altogether. Yet, drug addiction problems continue to worsen.

A bill before the Legislature, LD 113, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta, would downgrade possession and trafficking of some drugs, including some hallucinogens and depressants, from felonies to misdemeanors.

Another bill, which has yet to be drafted, would allow judges greater discretion when it comes to fines. Currently, the only way a judge can lower a fine is to keep the person who owes it in jail. The bill is sponsored by Democrat Mark Dion, former Cumberland County sheriff.

Last year, 900 people were held at the Cumberland County jail solely because of unpaid fines, said Oami Amarasingham, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Some are held for months, essentially re-creating the debtors prisons of centuries ago, she said. Aside from the steep taxpayer cost of holding someone in jail — about $130 a night — jailing low-level offenders who can’t afford fines often keeps them out of the workforce and further stresses their families.

Maine’s county jail system needs a better management structure. More important, the state needs to re-examine why so many people are in jail to start with and what we hope to accomplish by keeping them there. We’ll likely find that many of them don’t need to be behind bars.


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