Maine Crime Rate Plummets As Jails Remain Full–Criminal Justice Overkill.
Posted by Edmund R. Folsom, Esq.
December 2, 2019
Back in October, the Maine Department of Public Safety issued a press release on Maine’s 2018 crime statistics. This triggered news reports touting a more than a 40% decline in Maine’s crime rate between 2011 and 2018. At the time, the executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked why the incarceration rate hasn’t seen a similar decline. That’s a fair question.
Maine’s 2018 crime numbers are not available on the Maine.gov website at this point, although numbers for 2017 and prior years are posted there. For this post, we will use crime numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which include 2018 Maine statistics. For jail population numbers, we will use the interactive graph that appears in a recent Bangor Daily news story about a task force that is exploring why so many people are still held in Maine’s jails, pretrial.
The Uniform Crime Report numbers show that there were 45,406 crimes reported in Maine in 1990. Of those, 1,759 were violent crimes. In 2018, Maine’s reported crimes fell to 19,674, of which 1,501 were violent. This represents a 56.67% decline in overall crime and a 14.66% decline in violent crime from 1990 to 2018 (with violent crime falling, rising, and falling again during that period). During this time, Maine’s population increased just over 9%, from 1,227,928 to 1,338,404. We have the lowest violent crime rate and the next-to-lowest incarceration rate in the U.S. We also have the oldest population in the U.S. Next year, 22% of Maine’s population will be age 65 or older. Unless our aging population trend reverses, we can expect Maine’s crime rate to continue to fall on that basis alone.
What happened to the number of people in Maine’s jails and prisons between 1990 and 2018?
- According to federal Bureau of Justice statistics, in 1990 there were 1,523 people incarcerated in Maine prisons on state and/or federal charges. According to Maine’s Department of Corrections, as of December 2, 2019, there are 2,281 people in Maine’s prisons. That represents a 49.77% increase in the prison population from 1990 to now.
- According to the interactive graph in the Bangor Daily News jail population story, in 1990 Maine’s average daily jail population was 825.1, of whom 388.6 were held pretrial. In 2015, the last year covered, Maine’s average daily jail population was 1,670, of whom 1,102 were held pretrial. This marks nearly a perfect doubling of the jail population, and a rise in the percentage held pretrial from roughly 47% in 1990 to roughly 66% in 2015.
All of this was, again, during a period when the crime rate dropped approximately 57%, from 45,406 in 1990 to 19,674 in 2018. We doubled the number of people in Maine’s jails and increased by 50% the number of people in Maine’s prisons as the number of crimes dropped 57%.
The criminal justice system is an industry. As with all industries, its players are out to grow, not shrink it. And because it’s also a creature of government, shrinking it can be extremely difficult. When crime rates plummet, the beast finds creative ways to bring in new raw material for processing. Holding people in jail pretrial looks like one creative way Maine’s criminal justice beast keeps its belly full. As the percentage of people serving sentences in Maine’s jails dropped, the excess capacity was taken up by people held in jail awaiting trial.
Get this — I don’t have a problem with law enforcement, and I have never understood people who hate the police just because they’re the police. But we have to be willing to push back on the law enforcement, criminal justice industry as it strains to sustain and grow its empire. Is it wise to reflexively address every social problem with a response from police, prosecutors, criminal courts and threat of imprisonment? Ike Eisenhower warned us to beware the military, industrial complex. We should similarly beware the criminal justice, industrial complex. Each is driven by the self-interest of its participants, at times to the detriment of ours. And for our part, our first instinct is too often to burden the criminal justice industry with our problems — jailing the mentally ill, for instance — even when the industry is clearly a poor tool to address the problem.
Put away the sledge hammer for the finish work. No wonder people call 911 when they get the wrong drive-thru order—they must assume it calls for a police response, like everything else in modern society. Yes, it’s possible for a society to be policed to death and conned into paying enormous sums for an industrial-strength response to problems better addressed with a less industrial touch. It happens. It’s happening. Isn’t it time to strike a better balance?