The Portland Press Herald recently ran two pieces discussing data recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which shows that Maine has the lowest rate of criminal justice involvement of any state in the country. The first, originally published in the Washington Post, compares Maine to states like Texas, California and Georgia and discusses the general trend towards declining prison populations. This trend reflects a nationwide realization that we are incarcerating far too many people at far too great a cost, with little benefit to society. The second, an opinion piece by Bill Nemitz, points out that, while our incarceration rates are lower than in other states, we may not be doing enough to prepare those who are locked up to successfully re-enter society.
It's true that Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country, but this unfortunately isn't saying much. For every 100,000 Mainers, 350 are behind bars. This is a higher imprisonment rate than 96 percent of the world’s countries - higher than that of Iran, Belarus, China and Saudi Arabia. When it comes to human rights, this is not exactly a flattering list to be on.
The surprising truth in all of this is that it hasn't always been this bad. In 1980, Maine had only 541 people in prison. This means that over the last 25 years, our prisoner population has grown by nearly 300 percent. During the same time, our population has grown by only 18 percent.
This past week, we said goodbye to 2014 and rang in the New Year. For many this is a time of reflection on the past year. In terms of criminal justice, the numbers show that, while we had successes in 2014, still too many Mainers were swallowed up by our criminal justice system. Too many people found themselves ensnared in a system they may never get out of, too many families were separated, and Maine taxpayers spent too much money on a system that is fundamentally broken. Yes, Maine did this at a lower rate than states like Louisiana, Texas and Georgia; however, with over 10,000 people under some form of correctional control last year, it is nothing to celebrate.
In 2015, let's resolve to be more than just the best of the worst. Let's resolve that by this time next year, rather than just joining other states in mass incarceration's race to the bottom, we instead hold ourselves to a higher standard.
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