This week the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the Maine Legislature will consider LD 113, An Act to Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offenses, sponsored by Senator Katz of Augusta. This bill is an important step towards recognizing and treating drug addiction as a public health rather than criminal justice issue and will be impactful in decreasing criminal justice involvement in Maine. Passage of this bill is a priority for the ACLU of Maine.

While Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country, it's important to put that in a global perspective: even with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, Maine imprisons people at a higher rate than 92 percent of the world's countries. We incarcerate at a higher rate than China, the European Union and Canada.

There is no question we have mass incarceration in Maine. According to the most recent data, for every 100,000 Mainers, 350 are currently incarcerated. Everyday some 10,000 Mainers are under some form of correctional control; incarcerated in our state prisons or county jails, on probation or under some form of community supervision. And the single greatest drivers of criminal justice involvement in our state, and by extension mass incarceration, is drug crimes. 

As in the rest of the country, forty years ago, Maine declared a "War on Drugs." We created new agencies, such as the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, just dedicated to investigating drug crimes. We elevated the criminal penalties for even just low-level drug offenses, making it easier for prosecutors to threaten harsher sentences and judges to send people away for even longer periods of time. We invested millions and millions of Maine taxpayer dollars into punishing people for drug crimes. Arrests for drug offenses have increased by 238 percent since 1986. Between 1980 and 2011 the Maine state prison population grew by 297 percent (during the same period of time the population of the state grew by only 18 percent), with the largest number of people incarcerated for drug crimes.

But perhaps most shocking is how little of an impact this "War on Drugs" has had on drug use. By all indicators drug use has not declined what-so-ever; in fact, in Maine it appears to be increasing at an alarming rate. This is because the "War on Drugs" is not a war on drugs, it is a war on people. A war on people who are largely suffering from addiction, a complicated and tragically often fatal brain disease. And while policy makers could have chosen to address rising addiction rates by expanding access to treatment, prevention and economic opportunity they instead chose to punish. They chose to try to arrest and incarcerate our way out of our drug problem.

Not surprisingly, it failed. But more than that it has come at a tremendous cost. It comes at the immeasurable human cost of the thousands of Mainers separated from their loved ones by prison walls, family members many miles from home, and children growing up without a much needed parent. It has come at the cost of those who didn't get the help and treatment they needed even when they were ready for recovery. It has come at the cost of numerous lives who were lost from this devastating but treatable disease. It has come at the great cost to Maine taxpayers - forty years of arresting, punishing and incarcerating people (approximately $60 million per year) - money that should have been spent investing in treatment, prevention and improving the well-being of all Mainers through the building of schools, roads and jobs.

In the midst of the Drug War fervor, Maine lawmakers continued to elevate the penalties for even just low-level drug offenses. Today, even just simple possession of any amount of certain drugs (i.e half a pill, or possession of something containing drug residue) is a felony-level offense punishable by up to five years in prison. Possession of certain amounts is punishable by up to ten years. This is exceptionally harsh as even under federal law, simple possession of any drug is not a felony. Not surprisingly, since making possession a felony, illicit drug use rates have continued to skyrocket. We turned our jails into de facto detox centers, we have filled our state prisons with low-level offenders and we have burdened thousands of Mainers with the permanent consequences of a felony conviction, creating additional barriers for a person struggling with drug addiction to overcome.

It is time for Mainers to call for a different approach. Passage of LD 113 is the first step. By downgrading current criminal penalties, LD 113 will move us closer to recognizing that we must treat drug addiction as a public health rather than criminal justice issue and that people struggling with addiction need treatment not felonies. By decreasing the amount of time people are spending in the criminal justice system, LD 113 will free up resources, resources that are desperately needed to expand access to treatment and prevention.

Join us in calling on our lawmakers to pass LD 113.