• Health Equity Alliance

In Support of LD 309: An Act to Restore Judicial Discretion

My name is Kenney Miller. I’m the Executive Director of the Health Equity Alliance and  a co-founding member of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance. I am writing in SUPPORT of LD 309: An Act To Restore Judicial Discretion.

The Health Equity Alliance and the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance support and deliver cutting edge harm reduction programming for people actively struggling with addiction throughout Maine. HEAL alone serves more than 1,200 people actively using drugs. We provide syringe exchange services, drug overdose prevention education and narcan distribution, and HIV and hepatitis C screening. We offer kindness… respect… guidance…

We walk with them hand-in-hand on their journey towards recovery, supporting and encouraging them along the way. And it is on their behalf that we offer testimony.

It is well past time for a reasoned reconsideration around mandatory minimum sentences – particularly with regards to drug offenses. While mandatory minimum sentences have been in place in the US since the 1800s they took off in 1986 as part of ‘War on Drugs’ ramped up through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The result has been the exponential growth of the prison population and the criminal justice system, year after year after year.

Between 1984 and 2012 the rate of persons incarcerated in the Maine State Prison System doubled as more and more people were locked away for non-violent drug offenses growing from roughly 75 people per 100,000 to almost 150 people per 100,000. Furthermore, these penalties were not distributed evenly throughout the population. Whereas numerous studies have found that ethnoracial minorities consume drugs at the same rate or lower than whites, even in Maine the rate of blacks incarcerated in state prisons is 6 times that of whites. Drug policy came to resemble the continuing blight of racial discrimination.

Meanwhile costs have skyrocketed. In 2010 alone the State Prison System cost tax payers $132.9 million, while rates of substance use have remained stubbornly stable, and have grown in many instances.

However, while costs have risen dramatically, Maine’s Criminal Justice system continues to lag behind the growth of the incarcerated population. Prisons and jails are stretched well beyond capacity – with jails in Bangor and Augusta among other locales chronically over-capacity. This includes MANY people awaiting trial that are being held indefinitely, and MANY arrested on drug-related offenses.

Further, mandatory minimums compound drug user stigma – strict penalties, including the felonization of substance use make it more difficult to build a life after being released, leading to difficulties obtaining gainful employment, finding housing or pursuing a higher education. This challenges fragile recovery for people with substance use issues, by adding additional stressors to their already fraught lives.

By restoring greater judicial discretion we would allow judges the opportunity to weigh the evidence in front of them and better fit the sentence to the crime and the circumstances that surrounded it. It will help curb the spiraling costs of our criminal justice system, reduce the overly punitive repercussions of relatively minor crimes and give judges the opportunity to better treat addiction for what it is: a chronic brain disease, not a moral failing.