Officials urge improvements in Maine's criminal justice system

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LEWISTON — Though Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country and prisoners are often allowed to create new lives for themselves, two of the men who oversee the criminal justice system in the Pine Tree State see plenty of room for improvement.

Speaking to about 75 people Wednesday night at a Bates College forum sponsored by its Harward Center for Community Partnerships and the school’s sociology department, they described a system that could use more emphasis on justice and perhaps less on crime.

“We’re not so good at justice,” said Mark Dion, a state senator who is campaigning among fellow legislators to be Maine’s next attorney general.

Randall Liberty, warden of the state prison since 2015, said it costs $43,000 a year to keep someone behind bars — and not everyone who is locked up ought to be.

“There are options to incarcerating someone,” Liberty said.

For instance, Liberty said, when somebody who commits a minor offense is held in a county jail for 90 days, he or she might lose an apartment, medical help and more, doing nothing to put him or her on a better course.

“That’s dumb on crime. That’s stupid on crime,” he said, calling for police to continue to search for alternatives to the old “arrest, arrest, arrest” approach.

He said police these days are better trained than in the past. They can do more to find the proper help for some of those they encounter rather than simply making arrests that ultimately do not help.

Liberty also said keeping suspects in jail should be less common. It does not make sense, he said, to lock somebody up for a minor shoplifting charge when the suspect is not a danger to the community or unlikely to show up in court.

“Why would you put them in jail?” Liberty asked.

Dion, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said one of the problems the system faces is that judges do not have the flexibility to deal with the individuals who wind up in court.

Many lawmakers, he said, “don’t trust judges.” In recent decades, therefore, lawmakers have imposed a number of mandatory minimum sentences that prevent judges from going easy on convicted criminals.

He said that does not make sense.

Dion said many legislators think criminals make some sort of cost-benefit calculation before committing an offense, and if the punishments are harsh enough, they will refrain from breaking the law.

“That’s not remotely true,” he said.

A related problem is that legislators are too quick to peg any new crimes added to the code books as felonies carrying tougher penalties.

“Why don’t we start with misdemeanors first?” Dion asked.

Liberty said when people are incarcerated, it is important to address the issues that landed them in trouble.

He said helping people overcome addictions, deal with learning disabilities and get training and education can make big differences in many lives.

The 72 inmates he has seen earn college degrees, Liberty said, “don’t come back” to prison. Their recidivism rate is about 1 percent — a fraction of the norm.

In addition to doing more for prisoners, Liberty said, it is important to put more resources into ensuring good transitions for inmates who are returning to society.

He said there ought to be more halfway houses that provide cushions of 90 days to six months as ex-inmates move forward.

Better coordination of the resources that are already available, he said, would boost the chances a departing inmate will not return to jail or prison.

Liberty said many people think prison is about punishment or revenge. But that does not work, he said.

Instead, Liberty said, it is “all about redeeming people” so they can become productive, contributing members of communities.

He credited many volunteers who help in prisons with assisting in that endeavor, including those who work at a hospice program or faith-based groups that reach out to inmates.

Dion said he wished there were “a national magic bullet” that could fix the criminal justice system everywhere. But that will not happen, he said.

It takes discussions and improvement efforts at the local level. When they are successful, Dion said, the federal government and other states will notice and copy anything that works.

Peggy Rotundo, a former legislator who works at the Harward Center, said the forum at the Muskie Archives was the first in a series that will focus on policy issues in Washington, Augusta and Lewiston.

The idea, she said, is to help students see how the theories they discuss in the classroom are actually applied in the world outside Bates.

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State Sen. Mark Dion addresses the audience Wednesday night at a criminal justice forum at Bates College while, behind the table, Randall Liberty, warden of the state prison, and Bates sociology professor Michael Rocque look on. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

State Sen. Mark Dion, who seeks to become Maine’s next attorney general, speaks Wednesday night at Bates College about the need for criminal justice reform in Maine. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

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