Image courtesy of the Maine State Prison
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on February 16, 2023
Maine’s jails and prisons are full of individuals struggling with addiction and mental health issues. At a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday, advocates expressed dismay over Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to dramatically increase the Department of Corrections budget while allocating a fraction of that amount for mental and behavioral health.
“This year’s budget has an additional $45 million for corrections and only $3.5 million for mental health,” Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said in testimony to the legislature’s budget committee on Tuesday.
“Jails have been begging us for a decade to provide mental health services in the community because jails are not trained or equipped for the influx of people with untreated mental health diagnoses,” she added. “There are now ten times more individuals with Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI) in prisons and jails than there are in state mental hospitals. We are pushing people to the deep end of the pool. We should not be surprised that they are drowning. Our investments should be in prevention.”
In the joint hearing hosted by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, lawmakers took public comment on a proposed two-year budget submitted by Mills last month.
The governor has asked lawmakers to pass a budget that provides $2.5 million to the Opioid Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment Fund and $3.7 million to the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, housed within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
But those investments in treatment and harm reduction are meager when compared to the proposed increases for the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC).
Mills is calling for $461 million for the MDOC, a $45 million increase from the last biennial budget, and $127 million for policing, an $80 million increase.
“The governor’s budget proposes to substantially increase the DPS’s staffing and funding, increasing the number of positions in public safety by 21.5 (from 643.5 positions to 664) and increasing DPS’s budget by more than 10%,” Maine ACLU policy director Meagan Sway said. “For too long, we have relied on the policing institutions in our country to solve challenges better suited to our healthcare, housing, and educational systems.”
‘We need to change our actions and funding priorities’
The governor’s handling of the state’s overdose crisis has drawn a mixed response from Mainers dedicated to ending the failed “War on Drugs” and transitioning the state to a public health response. That is because Mills has focused on expanding both treatment and incarceration with calls to crack down on fentanyl traffickers.
A hyper-focus on fentanyl — which the governor mentioned several times in her State of the Budget address Tuesday evening — misses the point expressed by harm reduction advocates that policymakers should instead be moving to decriminalize substance use disorder to allow people to more easily access treatment.
During her speech, Mills announced additional measures to combat the drug overdose epidemic, which saw a 13% jump in fatalities last year. She proposed doubling the number of trained people who can respond with law enforcement to calls about substance use and help get people connected to treatment. She also pitched adding 140 residential treatment and detox beds.
The call for additional treatment beds was welcomed by many in the recovery community, who note that Maine currently only has 91 beds that are allocated for detoxification from substances.
At the same time, Mills’ budget proposes to increase funding for the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s last youth prison, from $16.3 million to $18.1 million, despite the fact that the number of young people incarcerated at the facility has dropped by over two-thirds in the last five years.
MDOC Commissioner Randall Liberty said during the hearing Tuesday that the increase is necessitated by higher labor costs at the youth prison.
The Maine ACLU urged lawmakers not to increase funding for Long Creek, citing a July 2022 conclusion by the U.S. Department of Justice that Maine unnecessarily segregates children with mental health or developmental disabilities at the facility, in psychiatric hospitals, and in residential treatment facilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Instead of increasing Long Creek’s budget, the legislature should invest these funds into community-based supports that allow families to stay together and the state to meet its legal obligations,” Sway said.
In 2021, Mills vetoed a bill to close Long Creek, calling the measure “fundamentally flawed because it forces the closure of the State’s only secure confinement option for juvenile offenders before safe and appropriate alternatives will be available.”
Advocates warned lawmakers Tuesday that Mills’ budget proposal fails to build those alternatives to incarceration at a time when the opportunity is potentially greater than ever, given a projected budget surplus for the next fiscal year.
“The legislature is charged with crafting a budget during a time of unprecedented opportunity and abundant resources,” Sway said. “Where you invest those resources now will determine the health of our state in the coming decade.”
Similarly, Malory Shaughnessy of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services said the budget needs to match the growing consensus that the overdose crisis is a public health problem requiring a public health solution.
“We keep saying we cannot arrest and jail our way out of a problem, but each successive budget attempts and then fails to make this shift,” she said. “We need to fundamentally shift our thinking, but more than that we need to change our actions and funding priorities to reflect our new thinking.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.