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Adan Abdikadar of Lewiston is a youth organizer with Maine Youth Justice.
With all eyes on the presidential election, many of us are eager to transform the criminal legal system and are feeling hopeless with our options. We may not be able to wake up on Nov. 4 with a clear answer to who is president, let alone what the future of the legal system or youth justice looks like. However, our local and state elections provide an opportunity to make a path forward and have a profound impact on the lives of those currently incarcerated and those disproportionately impacted by policing.
If you want to change the structure of policing and prisons in our country and our community, you have to know who makes the policy and who carries it out. Our outrage over the summer must carry into action at the polls as we entrust local leaders to turn it into laws and institutional practices. This will only happen by investing in the roles of school boards, city councils and state legislators that have a direct impact on how we allocate resources in and out of the legal system.
If you are serious about dismantling the criminal legal system, including the youth justice system, you must get involved and be an informed voter in our local and state elections.
This year, Maine’s state legislators, including all 151 voting representatives and all 35 senators, are up for election. The State House and Senate hold immense responsibility and influence, affecting taxes, resource allocation for community supports and police budgets. In addition, each state representative and senator serves on committees that examine, analyze and vote on legislation that relates to the committee’s specific issue.
There are 13 members who sit on the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. That is 13 opportunities for a voice in the room to push for dismantling the juvenile justice system. As well, there are 13 members on the Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs — another 13 chances for our voices to be heard in order to reinvest funds into key community supports or to decrease police budgets. Those 26 seats are chances to upend the racist foundation of our legal system.
Moving beyond the state Legislature, multiple Maine counties have openings on school boards and on city or town councils this year. Both institutions have an immense impact on dismantling youth incarceration.
School boards have the power to end partnerships with local law enforcement and end the use of school resource officers. The work already began in Portland this summer when the Portland School Board decided to remove school resource officers from their annual budget. As the upcoming election approaches, we can push further to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
In regards to city council powers, we have seen a wave across the country of councilmembers working to divest resources out of police departments and towards community services, including in Los Angeles and Seattle. Portland and Augusta could be no different.
Our representatives, whether in the state Legislature or on a school board, are tasked with carrying out the wishes of the community. As we reach this pivotal moment in the effort to undo the racist underpinnings of our legal system, we must ensure our leaders are working towards the same goals.
The ballot box is one of many tools we can use to organize and advocate for equitable and thriving communities. We must show up for our local elections and support friends and family who are struggling to create a voting plan, as voting is the next step to rid our society of the violent policies that continue to disproportionately impact Black and brown youth.
The action does not stop at the ballot box, however. After you cast your vote and learn the results, reach out to your new elected officials to start a relationship. Attend open meetings. Write to your state legislators. Testify on legislation that matters to you. Continue taking action for those impacted by the system who cannot.