Too many people have died and continue to suffer from America’s racism.
State Rep. Charlotte Warren and Jordan LeBouf, in their June 8 guest column in the BDN, clearly outlined what Maine can do to reduce police violence. The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition fully supports the three steps outlined in their column.
In solving any problem, we must first admit that there is one. From that first acknowledgement, we begin to confront the scope of the issue and to investigate and pursue solutions.
The coalition recognizes that the effects of racism continue beyond the first encounter with police. They lead to more arrests, bookings, prosecutions and sentences for people of color. Consequences include the personal impact on individuals, their families, children and communities. The poverty that results creates barriers to health, education, employment and community resilience.
This problem demands comprehensive criminal justice reform. Today, in Maine, we fund law enforcement and prisons, but do not provide adequate community resources that would reduce the use of the criminal justice system. For example, we have “resource officers” in schools, but do not have enough social workers or drug and alcohol counselors in many of them.
The Maine Legislature has important criminal justice reform bills that await action. We must demand real reform, not mere platitudes. These bills include these subjects:
Juvenile justice reform. In 2018, youth of color made up 8 percent of the general population, but 22 percent of the population of Maine’s only youth prison, Long Creek. In addition, nearly one-third of youth at Long Creek are admitted directly from residential mental health facilities. Incarceration is traumatic and only exacerbates mental health issues. We recommend Long Creek be closed. The $300,000 spent annually on each incarcerated youth should be utilized to provide necessary resources within the community.
Require training for all police officers and sheriff’s deputies in mental health and crisis response as well as education in racial sensitivity and bias.
Support drug sentencing reform. Black people and white people use drugs at equitable rates, but black Americans are five to eight times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offense.This creates overrepresentation of black people in the prison population. Currently, it costs more to keep someone overnight in jail than it does to provide rehabilitation. But there are not enough rehabilitation openings and those with substance use disorder often leave jail no better off than when they entered.
Fund programs. There is currently no budget for programming, according to Ryan Thornell, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections. In addition, fewer than one-third of inmates at the Maine State Prison have jobs. There are insufficient opportunities for rehabilitation and lack of incentives to participate in those few that exist. Maine eliminated parole in 1976, thus ending the relationship between self-improvement and the reward of early release. The result has been longer sentences, less programming and more recidivism. It is time to reconsider that decision.
Fair Chance. To mitigate the impact of incarceration and prevent recidivism we need to provide opportunities for those who are re-entering society to succeed. Instituting Fair Chance legislation would lower the barriers to employment, housing and education for those who have completed their sentences, and would strengthen families, thereby reducing the demand on social services and healing individuals and communities.
Watching the murder of black women and men by those who are sworn to protect them and us has awakened our conscience and opened our hearts. The work is before us. Let us begin.
Jan Collins is the assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.