| Criminal Law: Maine is punishing itself! |
According to the National Institute of Corrections Maine is a pretty good place to live. In 2008 the crime rate for Maine was 30% lower than the national average; the violent crime rate about 74% lower. In addition, we are doing a good job of finding ways of dealing with criminals other than locking them up - we're about 66% lower per 100,000 people than the national average. This is good, because on average incarceration costs about $28,700 per inmate per year. You can see these statistics at the NIC web site.
Unfortunately, Maine is spending about 35% more to lock someone up than the national average - a whopping $44,000 per year (according to the NIC web site.) And as the media, the Governor, and the Legislature tell us over and over Maine does not have money to waste. In fact, we need to find ways to economize. The Maine Department of Corrections is the third most expensive branch of government, with an annual budget of over three hundred million dollars. If we are looking for ways to balance the budget what we are spending on incarceration may be a good place to start.
Maine in many ways is an expensive place. Corrections facilities in Maine are expensive to build and to heat. Because they are often in out-of-the-way places there are costs in getting to the facilities materials needed there. Getting qualified corrections officers might cost more in Maine than in other places. There likely is some fat that can be trimmed from the bone, but it is also likely that there is only so much that Mane can do to cut the cost of incarceration.
Some states have tried to reduce costs by privatizing corrections. In fact, the cost of humane incarceration does not go down with privatization, it just goes in the pockets of for-profit corporations who try to increase profits by cutting corners, landing the states in expensive and generally losing litigation. States can not save by turning the job over to someone else: incarceration costs what it costs.
But this does not mean that we can not cut what we are spending on incarceration. Everyone who is locked up for any longer than absolutely necessary costs Maine a lot of money we do not have. If everyone behind bars needs to be behind bars then we have little choice. But I have been practicing criminal law in Maine for over 25 years, and can say based on personal experience and information gained from other people in the criminal justice system that there is still much room for improvement in how we deal with those accused or convicted of crime. Pre-conviction bail is too-often set at arbitrary amounts that keep locked up those who have not been convicted of anything, and who often get no jail sentence when they are convicted. Non-violent offenders are being locked up on "three strikes and you're out" laws that sound good in theory but mean that Maine is laying off teachers and leaving roads unrepaired so we can afford to lock up chronic potato chip shoplifters. Violent offenders who might have needed to be isolated for society's protection are kept isolated long after they stop being a threat to anyone. The war on drugs is a war on our budget. Illness and desperation are frequently correctable, but simply locking up the ill or desperate will do nothing to address the preventable root causes of their anti-social behavior, meaning that the chances of such people landing back in jail at taxpayer expense are much higher than they would be if we offered education or treatment designed to keep them from committing new crime. This is by no means a complete list, just an indication of how our focus can change.
We need to be looking, and looking seriously, at even more alternatives to incarceration. I have heard that criminals should not be coddled, that crime should not be rewarded, but we are long past the point that we should have been asking how much we are willing to pay to prove some questionable moral point, because as is thoroughly documented retribution comes with a very high price tag. We are paying per inmate about what it costs to attend a private college in Maine - $44,000/year - and getting almost nothing to show for it - the inmates are paying no taxes, contributing nothing to the economy, learning nothing that will make them productive members of society, and so in too many cases will repay nothing of what we are investing. And the cost of spending this money is that we do not have it for programs and services we need.
The reality is that almost anything else we try will cost us less in the long run than incarceration. House arrest costs less. Drug treatment and vocational training have initial costs, but over time cost less. Factor in that incarceration often results in the break-up of marriages, putting one or both adults on welfare, and children in foster care at taxpayer expense (and children who spend time in foster care are significantly more likely to become criminals themselves than are children in intact families), and almost anything we can come up with other than incarceration will be better for our budget than what we are doing. This will not work for all those in the criminal system - some people do need to be separated from potential victims. But it will work for many we are paying top dollar - 35% over national average - to punish.
Because the ones being most severely punished may be us who have done nothing wrong.
Maine needs to revise its criminal laws and processes.
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