On October 10 in the Muskie Archives, the Bates and Lewiston community were joined by Maine State Senator Mark Dion and Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty for a panel on criminal justice reform.
Presented by the Sociology Department and the Harward Center, this was the first program in the Harward Center’s “Theory into Practice” series. The evening was opened by Peggy Rotunda of the Harward Center, who spoke to the objectives of the programming. The goals for this series are for the community to learn how theory is translated into law and how those laws can impact real people. The center urges students to learn about debates on policy and motivate them to act and get involved with these issues.
Reforming the criminal justice system is a contentious and highly debated subject among officials. Maine State Senator Mark Dion’s opening remarks at the panel Wednesday evening made it clear that he sees areas for improvement in Maine’s criminal justice system. Dion represents Maine’s 28th district and is the chair of the Maine legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. As a former Portland police officer and Cumberland County Sheriff, Dion has years of experience working with criminal justice, allowing him to offer valuable insights.
Dion noted that too often criminal justice policy is arrived at and created within closed rooms where the public cannot participate. “Criminal justice,” Dion said, “is something that is decidedly a local issue. So state legislatures and city councils have much more say in the nature of law and order in their communities then representative officials do in Washington.”
The public has the opportunity and the right to be involved in criminal justice policy, and neighborhoods can decide how they want these policies to look.
During his work as a police officer, Dion reflected that the department measured their success by the number of arrests they made. As he progressed in his career, Dion learned that instead of associating success with arrests, departments should define success in terms of how well they meet the needs of their community.
Randall Liberty brought a new perspective as Maine’s State Prison Warden and echoed some of Dion’s themes during his remarks. The state of Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, but Liberty has found there is a lot that can be and needs to be done in order to improve the criminal justice system.
Liberty believes in purpose-driven incarceration. “While people are incarcerated, let’s identify exactly how they arrived there,” he said. If the person has a drug problem, Liberty contends that there needs to be programs in place to treat that addiction. Liberty also cited receiving an education in prison as something that prevents individuals from returning.
Another point Liberty made was that people should be diverted from corrections, and that there are options to incarcerate someone. Not only does an unnecessary stint in jail harm an individual, but it also costs taxpayers. According to Liberty, it costs $43,000 a year to house an inmate at the Maine State Prison. “We need to be selective on who’s in there in the correctional facilities and why they are there,” Liberty said.
Both officials recognize that it isn’t going to be easy to reform the system. Liberty said that he wishes there was a “magic bullet” that would better the national system. Instead it is going to take a lot of work from individuals and local communities. Dion noted that we all share a duty to do what we can. “I come here with no solution, lots of questions, and you share the responsibility to answer quite a few of them,” he said.
Dion and Liberty both shared ways that Bates students can participate in the advancement of the Maine and national criminal justice systems. These ways include building and spreading awareness by attending events such as the panel and taking tours of the prisons. Students can volunteer to improve literacy rates in the correctional facilities and can also do research to discover new ways to aid the evolution of the system.