Penobscot County Jail. Credit: Gabor Degre

This week, members of the Maine Legislature will elect an attorney general to serve the state for the next two years. As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general’s many duties include representing the state in criminal justice proceedings and giving advice to the government.

The attorney general is one of the most powerful people in the Maine criminal justice system. Whoever is elected will have the power to support criminal justice reform, correct overly harsh and punitive policies, and make the system fairer and more equal for all people. As our elected leaders prepare to vote, we hope they will take time to learn the candidates’ positions on key issues.

First, we need an attorney general who is committed to increasing transparency and accountability. The public deserves to know what the Office of Attorney General is doing in our name.

Our attorney general should pledge to make statistical information about decisions made by their office available to the public. This includes how often they decide to bring charges, how often they offer plea deals, and how often they offer placement in treatment and diversion programs, rather than criminal charges.

Second, we need an attorney general who supports juvenile justice reform. Kids don’t belong in prison, and research shows that community-based responses to youth offenses are more effective and less costly than time behind bars.

Our attorney general should support shifting resources away from an incarceration-based system for youth offenders toward a range of community-based alternatives, such as restorative justice and mental health supports. The ultimate goal should be closing Maine’s youth prison.

Third, we need an attorney general who is committed to reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affect people of color and indigenous people.

Our attorney general should commit to tracking and working to eliminate racial disparities in decisions made by their office, such as inconsistencies in charging decisions and plea bargains. They should also commit to requiring that assistant attorneys general participate in racial equity training to reduce implicit bias in their decision-making, and to recruiting people of color to work at all levels in the office.

Fourth, we need an attorney general who recognizes the need to stop punishing people for being poor. In any given year, thousands of Mainers spend time behind bars simply because they can’t afford a fine or bail.

Our attorney general should support legislation that would provide the pretrial release of defendants without cash bail, unless the defendant is shown to pose an imminent flight risk or danger to the community. And the attorney general should support efforts to reduce or eliminate fines and fees for people who cannot afford to pay them.

Finally, we need an attorney general who will treat mental illness and substance use disorders as public health problems, not criminal justice ones.

Our attorney general should support legislation to divert people with substance use disorders away from our jails and into community-based programs. And they should commit to working to expand the treatment programs available for people with mental health issues, including asking legislators for funding.

Most states are recognizing that the criminal justice system cannot be the answer to all of society’s problems, and are taking steps to reduce their jail and prison populations. But Maine was one of 20 states where the number of people in prison increased in 2017. Far too many people are in jail needlessly, at too great a human and fiscal cost. People of color, people with mental illness and working-class people are disproportionately caught up in our oversized correctional system.

And we’re not any safer for it. A 2017 report from the Vera Institute for Justice showed that increased incarceration rates have no demonstrated effect on violent crime, and in some instances may actually increase crime.

This week the Maine Legislature has an opportunity to support smart justice reform, by choosing an attorney general who does, too. We look forward to working with the new attorney general to make the criminal justice system more fair and equitable for all Mainers.

Alison Beyea is executive director of the ACLU of Maine.