Maine is at a crossroad. Jails across the state are overcrowded, and the cost to taxpayers to maintain them is skyrocketing. Often, though, people who sit in cells are not violent or hardened criminals. They are struggling with mental health issues or are one of the increasing number of Mainers struggling with addiction.
Dealing with this public health crisis should not be a primary job of the criminal justice system, despite the fact that people suffering from mental health or addiction issues end up in jail. There is increasing consensus that the current approach is not working, and there are efforts at both the state and federal levels to change how things are done.
I am a 29-year veteran of the Cumberland County Sheriffs’ Office. I have dedicated my career to keeping my community safe. I strongly support arresting and punishing dangerous individuals. However, my experience has taught me that locking up nonviolent offenders — many of whom are suffering from addiction and mental health issues — is not the best way to curb crime and keep my community safe.
Arresting and incarcerating people struggling with addiction and mental health issues does not “fix” them. Instead, my jail has become the largest detoxification center and mental health facility in Maine. Though we do our best, every day I watch people cycle in and out without getting the help they need.
Spinning around in this revolving door doesn’t solve any problems and it directs resources away from finding and punishing violent criminals. They are the ones who pose the greatest threat to the safety of my community.
Fortunately, there have been some promising signs of reform and law enforcement has been one of the loudest voices behind them. Early this year, I joined fellow law enforcement officials to support a bill creating law enforcement-led diversion programs here in Maine. I also joined Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of more than 165 law enforcement officials from all 50 states, who have come together to urge a nationwide reduction in both crime and incarceration.
There are other opportunities for reform, particularly at the federal level. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill currently before the United States Senate, would make much-needed changes to the system. By amending federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug crimes and expanding recidivism reduction programs, this bill would allow law enforcement officials to focus on the real issues that threaten community safety. Moreover, it would help us reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary incarceration.
Both Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have been working hard in Washington to provide much-needed grants to states to expand treatment efforts. Now their support is also needed on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
In Maine, things are changing. Law enforcement officials across this state are finding innovative new ways to collaborate with the communities we serve to effectively address addiction. We are taking actions to decrease our over-reliance of prisons and jails to address this public health crisis.
It is time that the federal government does the same.
Kevin Joyce is Sheriff of Cumberland County.