Statehouse Report: Maine legislators may embrace criminal justice reforms

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The crisis in Maine’s court system, with more than 9,000 criminal cases pending, could help drive the Legislature toward ambitious criminal justice reform measures that might have seemed visionary – or even impossible – a few years ago.

If it does, lawmakers are ready with several dozen proposals on everything from converting criminal offenses into violations to overhauling the state’s E-911 system.

Fewer than 200 of the expected 1,600 or more bills have been printed, and public hearings won’t start until February. But many of the legislators sponsoring the bills said they are planning various approaches to reducing the number of crimes and individuals processed daily by Maine law enforcement agencies.

One of the most straightforward, but surprisingly extensive, bills would reclassify dozens of Class E crimes, the lowest level, as civil violations – much as Maine lawmakers did for marijuana possession back in the 1970s, in an earlier round of “decriminalization.”

In the years since, the momentum has been in the other direction, with successive legislatures sharply increasing penalties, adding new offenses, and establishing many “mandatory minimum” sentences.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is sponsoring a measure to remove numerous traffic and wildlife law offenses from the criminal code, on behalf of the eight Maine district attorneys.

It turns out that, in Maine, you can go to jail for lack of a juvenile hunting license, practicing falconry without a permit, selling bait without a license, hunting ducks with a sawed-off shotgun, or even leaving decoys in Merrymeeting Bay out of season.

While jail time is rarely imposed for such offenses, it’s possible to request a jury trial for any of the charges – among the reasons for the criminal case backlogs.

Traffic offenses that can lead to jail comprise another extensive list. They include driving after suspension of a license or registration, doctoring odometers, misuse of license plates, or abandoning a motor vehicle on an island.

State Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell.

Warren said that, while relatively minor, such offenses prompt increases in law enforcement activity. Over the last six years, the Department of Public Safety budget has increased from $40 million to $53 million – far faster than most agencies.

“And it doesn’t stop there,” she said. “Arrests drive court spending, and ultimately (Department of) Corrections, too.”

Warren is even more emphatic about another bill that would halve the budget of the joint state-federal Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and redirect it to treatment programs for substance use disorders.

While not a detailed proposal, “It should get the conversation going,” she said. “We know that what we’re doing is never going to work. Drugs are available everywhere in Maine, and we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

Looked at another way, “This is a negative rate of return for the community,” Warren said. “We’ve vastly increased the number of incarcerated women, 80 percent of whom have children at home.”

In contrast, she said, “We’re seeing the success of recovery programs, and we know what works. We just don’t have enough places to meet the demand for treatment.”

Reduce arrests

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, wants to go beyond reclassifying crimes to reducing arrests. One of her bills would make failure to either wear a seatbelt or display a current inspection sticker secondary offenses, rather than primary – meaning police could not stop a driver solely for these violations.

State Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland.

She also wants to revamp the criminal justice system for young adults older than the juvenile age of 18, perhaps to 25. Rather than add to the burden of the juvenile system, however, her bill would target diversion programs within the adult system. An earlier version of the bill “had a lot of support” in state government, she said, including from the Education and Corrections departments.

Finally, Morales would like to overhaul the E-911 system to allow dispatchers to route calls to crisis teams, rather than solely to police departments.

“That’s the pathway into our criminal justice system for so many,” she said, relying on police officers who may not be trained to respond to a mental health crisis.

There’s been some success elsewhere with such programs, but funding for 24-hour services won’t be easy to find, Morales admitted.

Bring back parole

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, is focusing his efforts on an attempt to bring back parole hearings for inmates in state prisons.

 

State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship.

Parole was abolished in 1976 as part of a short-lived movement toward “determinative sentencing,” meaning that not only was judicial discretion reduced, but the state has no way to adjust or commute a long sentence.

Evangelos said the result is that, despite its low crime rate, Maine imprisons its citizens for a disproportionately long time. He can find no record, since 1976, of a prisoner being released early as a result of a gubernatorial commutation or pardon – the only remaining alternative.

He learned a hard lesson when he encouraged Brandon Brown, an inmate who’d served most of a 17-year sentence and had been accepted into a doctoral degree project, to seek clemency from Gov. Janet Mills.

After a public hearing in April 2020, the process went behind closed doors. Last July, Mills rejected the appeal. Evangelos sharply criticized the decision and said, “If Brandon Brown doesn’t qualify for clemency, no one ever will.”

His bill would make all current and future prisoners eligible for a parole hearing if, for a sentence of 25 years or more, they’ve served 20 years. For shorter sentences, they would have to serve at least half, as Brown has. For hearings, he would rely on the existing five-member probations board but expand its jurisdiction.

The only prisoners now eligible for parole are those sentenced before 1976 – a number that’s dwindled to two.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues since 1984 as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Likelihood increases for closing Long Creek

There’s plenty of support in the Portland area to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center, and the Legislature could take decisive steps to do so in its current session.

While no one envisions an immediate shutdown, work to replace the functions of Maine’s only youth prison has proceeded steadily. And two bills filed by members of the Portland delegation would take different routes to the same end.

Freshman Rep. Grayson Lookner’s proposal would transfer funding away from Long Creek, which has an annual budget of $18.2 million, and toward community programs at the rate of $5 million a year.

Democrat Lookner, a community activist with a background in mental health, is serving in his first elected position, representing District 37. He said he saw what typically happens to troubled young people when he worked at a homeless shelter in Arizona.

“It was a really underfunded program, and these kids were being set up for failure,” he said. “They end up in crime, which puts them in jail. We call it the school-to-jail pipeline.”

Veteran Rep. Michael Brennan, a Democrat from District 36, is bringing back a proposal to implement recommendations of the Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force, which he co-chaired, along with Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty and Jill Ward, director of the Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine Law School.

A bill was on the table when the 2020 legislative session shut down last March. Brennan has made some adjustments, especially in light of funding shortfalls limiting the Legislature’s ability to launch new programs.

Brennan’s bill would establish two or three new secure facilities for the small number of juveniles found by a judge to be safety risks to their communities. One would likely be in greater Portland, possibly on the Long Creek grounds in South Portland, and another in Bangor.

Once the new centers are up and running, possibly as early as 2022, Long Creek can be phased out and closed, Brennan said. He pointed out that Long Creek, which opened in 1998 and is now licensed to hold 168 juveniles, now has less than one-quarter that number.

Before the pandemic, there were 50 youths incarcerated, and now just 30-35, Brennan said, because of diversion programs that keep juvenile offenders in the community. “It’s a very manageable number,” he said. “This is the time to move forward.”

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, who also worked on Long Creek issues in the previous Legislature, said community care teams have been established in all parts of Maine, and that since half the juveniles at Long Creek are being detained, not committed, diversion could take hold rapidly.

“If the only reason they’re being held is that there is no other place for them, that’s a problem we ought to be able to solve,” she said.

One potential obstacle to closure – last year’s proposal by the Department of Corrections to transfer female prisoners to Long Creek from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham – may have disappeared.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said it’s her understanding the proposal is “off the table.” Pandemic-related reductions in women being held at Windham should allow the department to proceed with a major rebuilding of the Windham facility without the Long Creek relocation, she said.

Such a move would have been a stretch. In late 2019, Associate Commissioner Colin O’Neill admitted that it would be tough to meet guidelines prohibiting “sight and sound” contact between juveniles and adults.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman confirmed the department isn’t submitting any legislation concerning Long Creek.

With a prisoner transfer no longer in prospect, chances for a phase-out have markedly improved, Morales said. A greater challenge, she added, lies in the “community conditions” that underlie most juvenile offenses.

“We lack the health care, housing, transportation, green space, the libraries necessary for young people to thrive,” Morales said. “Student homelessness is already a big problem, and it could get a lot worse” as a result of the pandemic, which has vastly increased requests for Section 8 housing vouchers.

In that sense, juvenile justice reform could just be the beginning of necessary policy changes.  

— Douglas Rooks