As the 2022 legislative session begins, lawyers and lawmakers are proposing a slate of bills to reform Maine’s punitive drug laws and address other aspects of the state’s often harsh criminal legal system.
Invoices arrive after a legislative session 2021 during which significant progress was made on these issues. The Democratic-led Maine Legislature passed laws banning police no-knock warrants, ended cash bail for some low-level crimes, banned police from seize money and property before a conviction and passed the nation’s most restrictive ban on facial recognition technology.
In addition, major drug reforms were passed last year, including a bill addressing Maine’s tough drug trafficking laws and another that removed criminal penalties for possessing and sharing needles. hypodermic.
Yet there were also some disappointments in the 2021 session. Amid an exorbitant rate of overdose deaths in Maine, advocates pushed for a bill to decriminalize drug possession to focus resources on treatment rather than punishment and incarceration. However, a handful of Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans in killing Bill.
Additionally, Governor Janet Mills – a conservative Democrat and former prosecutor which has been an obstacle to many efforts to reform the justice system — vetoed a number of progressive criminal justice measures that have reached his desk, including a bill to shut down Maine’s last youth prison.
Drug reform measures
As the 2022 legislative session approaches, bills to reform the way the legal system deals with substance use will once again be under consideration. One such measure is LD 1862, sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln), which would bolster Maine’s “Good Samaritan Law.”
The law in force, sign in 2019, protects people who report an overdose and a person who overdoses from a small set of criminal offenses. LD 1862 would extend protections from arrest or prosecution for a non-violent offense or breach of bail or condition of release to anyone at the scene of an overdose when medical assistance is sought.
The bill is a top priority of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (ME-RAP), a group dedicated to changing the conversation and public policy outcomes around substance use.
“What we hear on the ground across the state is that people are still terrified of calling 911 because not everyone is protected and the crimes they are protected from are not important enough,” ME-RAP policy director Courtney Allen said. tag in December about the need for LD 1862. “So people keep scattering at the scene of an overdose and can’t call 911.”
After a year that will probably mark the deadliest yet Maine’s opioid epidemic, Maxmin said expanding the Good Samaritan law is crucial.
“The number of people overdosing and struggling in our communities is only increasing and is exacerbated by everything going on in the world right now, and our laws need to be able to match the severity of the crisis,” she said. “And it’s a really direct and powerful way to do that.”
Another priority for drug reform advocates pushing this session is a move sponsored by Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) that would remove restrictions on syringe service providers that prevent them from adhering to best health practices. public. The law project, LD 1909, would prohibit caps on the number of syringes vendors can dispense to people and override a policy known as 1:1 exchange, which requires vendors to collect a used syringe in order to provide a clean syringe.
In an email about its legislative priorities for the 2022 session, the ACLU of Maine argued that the 1:1 swap rule is “contrary to what the US CDC, the American Medical Association and other other public health and medical groups – providing people with the supplies they need more safely without arbitrary caps.
“There needs to be a public health response to drug use, and GL 1909 would allow [service providers] to follow best practices and help people stay alive and healthy,” the ACLU said of the need for the bill.
An additional drug-related measure this year is a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) to ensure funds from litigation against opioid manufacturers are spent to address the substance use crisis. in Maine by “prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery.”
This bill, DL 1722, is another priority in the 2022 session for ME-RAP, which is also working on a measure — DL 1175 – to prohibit excessive video, telephone and police charges for people in jail and in prisons.
Along with drug-related reforms, advocates and lawmakers support a number of other measures aimed at reforming the criminal justice system. Such Invoice, sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), would reduce the use of solitary confinement in the state’s corrections system.
“There is a long, documented history of how keeping people in isolation for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years is psychologically damaging to people’s psyches,” Lookner said. “And that in no way makes our state any safer to hold people in those conditions.”
Lookner said that while the Maine Department of Corrections claims they don’t use solitary confinement, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the system who are kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, citing the case of a man incarcerated at Maine State Prison who spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement. Lookner said instead of calling these measures solitary confinement, the department uses other terms to “obfuscate what they’re doing.”
He said his bill, LD 696, would define anything over 17 hours a day in solitary confinement as solitary confinement and limit that to three days at a time. Lookner added that the legislation would require the MDOC to provide justification for putting someone in solitary confinement and ban the practice altogether for certain populations, such as those under 24, over 55, people with disabilities and people with disabilities. pregnant women.
“If passed, it would be the most comprehensive bill in the country banning and regulating the use of solitary confinement,” he said.
Another bill Lookner is proposing in the 2022 session would ban abusive practices at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. Lookner sponsored a bill last year to shut down Long Creek, Maine’s last youth prison, which passed the legislature after a grassroots campaign LEDs by those who were incarcerated in the facility. However, the measure was opposed by Mills.
But after reports surfaced in September that Long Creek guards were still employing restraints on inmates, which the Disability Rights Maine group called “intrinsically dangerous and potentially deadly,” Lookner introduced emergency legislation to put practice ends at Long Creek. He said the bill would also ban the use of electroshock devices and chemical sprays in the youth prison.
Lookner acknowledged that simply banning unsafe practices at Long Creek is not enough, reiterating that the facility must close. Still, he said the bill gives lawyers and lawmakers another opportunity to argue that the prison should be closed.
An additional criminal justice priority that advocates are focusing on is DL 1479, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), which would decriminalize a variety of minor traffic violations, including failure to register a vehicle and littering.
The ACLU of Maine said it supports the bill because it would reduce “the footprint of law enforcement in people’s lives.”
“Minor traffic violations have given law enforcement a means to conduct unconstitutional and pretextual traffic stops,” the group said. “This is especially true for black drivers – for whom a minor traffic violation can mean humiliation on the side of the road or even death by a police officer.”
The group said it is also working this session on two bills that address the challenges Mainers may face in sealing or expunging their criminal records.
“Criminal records pose huge barriers to housing, employment and further education – which are the very things people need to return and thrive in their communities,” the ACLU said.
Top photo by Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images