On November 5, we received the exciting news that Proposition 47 passed in California with a solid 59 percent of the vote. Not only will this measure reclassify six low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, it is retroactive - meaning that thousands of individuals sentenced under these laws may now go before a judge to be resentenced or released, and hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions for these offenses may have them removed from their record. Prop 47 enjoyed widespread support, from advocacy organizations, faith leaders, law enforcement, crime victims, judges, labor unions and republican and democratic leaders.
The potential impact of this reform on the lives of thousands of Californians is truly enormous. But Prop 47 has also shown other states how far the criminal justice reform dials can be pushed. We in Maine should take note.
Last Monday, less than a week after Prop 47 passed, the Uniform Crime Reporting Division of the Maine Department of Public Safety released its 2013 arrest data for the state. In 2013, Maine law enforcement agencies made 49,610 arrests, down from 51,150 arrests in 2012. While the overall number of arrests in Maine last year decreased, arrests for drug violations rose from 5,527 in 2012 to 5,599 in 2013. Of those arrests, 77 percent were for possession alone. Most notable was a 31 percent increase in the number of arrests due to opium, cocaine and derivatives.
In Maine, mere possession of any quantity of many drugs (including all prescription opiates and heroin) is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Possession of certain amounts is punishable by up to 10 years. These arrests translate into hundreds of Mainers being charged with felony offenses and swept into our criminal justice system every year.
In addition, our drug laws are not equally applied. While studies consistently show similar use rates regardless of race, in Maine, black people are arrested at almost four times the rate of white people. In York County they are arrested at almost nine times the rate of white people. While we lack necessary data to fully examine sentencing disparities in Maine, over-representation in our state prison population also points to disproportionately harsh sentencing of black people.
Our drug laws and the collateral consequences that flow from a conviction also disproportionately impact women. Women are now the fastest growing incarcerated population in the county. In Maine, the number of women incarcerated in our state prisons has increased by 150 percent since 2000. Nationally, women are 63 percent more likely than men to be in prison for simple drug possession.
Women in particular face unique challenges going through the criminal justice process that can make the experience of incarceration particularly harmful. A staggering 85 to 90 percent of incarcerated women have experienced physical or sexual abuse and two-thirds of all women in state prisons have children under 18.
Furthermore, research has shown that women are disproportionately impacted by collateral consequences. Because women are more likely than men to be convicted of drug felonies, bans on people with felony drug convictions receiving public benefits disproportionately impact women, resulting in economic instability and poverty.
In addition, women with criminal records face greater barriers to employment than men. Women are overrepresented in the fields of retail, childcare and home health care – all fields where criminal records are often considered in the hiring process (as opposed to male-dominated occupations such as construction and manufacturing). One study from 2001 to 2006 found that approximately 61 percent of men had secured employment post-release, compared to 37 percent of formerly incarcerated women.
The passage of Prop 47 in California has demonstrated that Americans, regardless of political party affiliation, are ready for more sensible criminal justice policies. Mass incarceration has failed to make us safer and come at a great financial and incalculable human cost.