A state commission that has been tasked with studying the reinstatement of parole in Maine is set to begin work soon, but some reform proponents worry that officials with a long-standing attitude toward alternative sentencing will hamper their efforts.
Maine lawmakers agreed in February to create the commission, which will work through December to study issues such as how parole works in other states, how it fits into the Maine Penal Code, various forms of parole conditional and its costs and benefits – both financially and financially. for individual prisoners. In early December, the 13-member panel is due to release a report with recommendations and proposed legislation.
Maine abolished parole in 1976 and is one of 16 states that do not allow it.
I-Friendship Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, who lobbied to reform Maine’s criminal justice system, authored the original legislation as the “Act to Restore Parole.” But the Maine Senate amended the bill to focus on studying the idea.
Evangelos, who is on the newly formed commission, said the Senate made its decision based on inaccurate and “misleading” testimony from the Maine attorney general. Aaron Frey told lawmakers last spring he opposed the bill on a variety of grounds, including that the parole board’s power to grant parole would overlap with the governor’s power to grant clemency. – which he said would interfere with the separation of powers provided for in the state constitution.
About 70 people gave public testimony before the Judiciary Committee as lawmakers considered the bill in 2021. They included former and currently incarcerated people, defense attorneys, criminal justice reform advocates and people who have lost loved ones to violent crime.
In his own testimony, Evangelos said parole would provide incarcerated Mainers with the opportunity to use some of the reintegration skills they learned through prison programs. He said it could provide a second chance for incarcerated Mainers who committed a serious crime when they were much younger and were sentenced to 20 or 30 years.
Some comments in favor of parole came from family members who said their loved ones had been incarcerated for too long. Those letters were met with a handful of statements from parents and siblings who have lost loved ones to murder and told lawmakers they oppose the return of parole.
In his testimony, Frey also spoke about these victims and their families.
“The reinstatement of parole will have a significant impact on victims and surviving family members of homicide victims,” Frey wrote. “Whenever a person is eligible for parole, the parole board holds a hearing where victims relive the trauma of the crime with limited certainty or finality of the process. In addition, parole procedures often leave victims and surviving family members uncertain as to when the offender will actually be released from incarceration.
Notably, the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence have said they neither support nor oppose reinstating parole – instead, they acknowledged that an “overwhelming majority of those who commit crimes in Maine each year are people who, at some point, will live in our communities again,” and said the state needs more programs rehabilitation programs that really work to prevent people from committing further violence when they are released.
Kimora, teacher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who bears a name, teaches students about corrections and has worked with “thousands” of New York City parolees over the past 22 years. While she argues that parole is a “very necessary and productive” way to reintroduce a person into society, she said parole only works for its participants and victims of violent crime if those released parole are closely monitored.
They also need their basic needs met – for housing, employment and health care or treatment for substance use disorders.
“It was human beings who made mistakes. They need another chance at life,” Kimora said. “A lot of people who come out really want to change for the better. They want work, they want to support their families. They want to change. »
Arthur Jones, who is part of Maine’s new commission, said resistance to parole is often based on the idea that it allows prisoners to get out early. But it’s more nuanced than that, said the former criminal justice professor at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and Kaiser Graduate School in Fort Lauderdale, who has served on parole boards in Providence and in New Jersey.
“The problem with parole is that parole is an opportunity for the inmate to serve the rest of their time in the community, under the supervision of a parole officer,” Jones said. “A lot of people misinterpret that – they think parole ends a sentence. It’s not.”
Jones, who came to Maine in retirement, spent 28 years working for the New Jersey Department of Corrections as an assistant director of education. He said he was also an administrator of the state’s “Scared Straight” program, which showed young people what life in prison was like in an effort to keep them from ending up there.
Jones spent just over half of his career in New Jersey with the state parole board, where he reviewed thousands of applications from minors and adults to state correctional facilities. Over time, he said, he has deepened his understanding of what makes a parole program successful and what can get in the way of successful reintegration into society.
Rehabilitation programs — including those for substance use disorders — need to be readily available at state correctional facilities even before a person applies for parole, Jones said. Once released, parolees need affordable access to similar programs. Parole officers supervising released inmates need to be observant and know how to connect their parolees to employment and housing.
“We can parole everyone in the world. If they don’t have help from the community, they’ll be back there in three to four months,” Jones said.
Jones said he hopes the commission will examine what has made the programs successful in other states, in addition to hearing from people who are incarcerated and victims of crime. Jones is also part of a group in Belfast called Restorative Justice Project Maine, which advocates for a process in which victims voluntarily agree to meet with the people who harmed them to discuss what happened with a mediator present. and finding ways to undo at least some of the harm done.
The 13-member commission who will study parole includes lawmakers from both parties and chambers, a representative from the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, a local prosecutor, criminal justice reform advocates and a representative from the Office of the Attorney General of Maine.
Frey nominated Assistant Attorney General Laura Yustak to serve. Frey and Yustak, through a spokesperson, declined to discuss their expectations for the commission or their thoughts on parole.
“There are a lot of people on the commission who haven’t yet weighed why or whether they want parole,” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who will co-chair the commission, as she does. the Legislative Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Warren said she expects the group to hold its first official meeting in early September.
“Personally, I believe in the power of people to change. I see this system as hopefully creating citizens that we want to return to our communities,” Warren said. “But I encourage everyone to show up and put aside where they are today, to try to approach this study with curiosity.”