AUGUSTA, Maine — For nearly five decades, parole has not been an option for those serving time in Maine’s prisons.
That reality has been at the center of heated discussions related to reforming our justice system for about two years — and it seems like that momentum isn’t dying down just yet.
Representative Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship) is the sponsor of LD 842, “An Act to Reestablish Parole." Last winter, the 130th Legislature voted to send it to a study commission for review.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, 13 commission members held their last of five meetings before sending a report to the 131st Legislature. From there, the Judiciary Committee will decide what next steps to take, based on these findings.
“A lot of it will be based on the original bill, but it may be somewhat broader in its recommendations — leaving room for the new Legislature to hone down,” Evangelos said about what the commission’s report might look like.
The reestablishment of parole in Maine has been a big focus for Evangelos since he first visited a prison in 2012. He said that experience changed his own stigmas about people who are incarcerated.
“There are some remarkable people in our prisons who have done remarkable work who deserves a second chance,” Evangelos said.
One of the people who really touched him was Brandon Brown, a young man who was sentenced to 17 years in prison when he was 21 years old after shooting and permanently disabling someone during a fight in the Old Port. His father, Mark Brown, testified at Tuesday’s meeting.
“It’s really difficult to understand the prison system unless you’re part of it — whether you’re in it or have a family member there,” Mark said.
Brandon completed his associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees while in prison. He’s currently out on the Supervised Community Confinement Program and is working on his PhD while teaching at Colby College and the University of Maine at Augusta, and mentoring kids at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.
Mark said while he’s proud of his son, he worries other prison residents may not have the same kind of drive to do as much self-improvement.
“There needs to be incentive,” Mark said. “There needs to be reason for someone to reinvent themselves.”
Commissioner Randall Liberty is one of the commission members. He said his primary concerns are public safety and caring for victims. He said he questions how much time should be shaved off a sentence a judge hands down after hearing from prosecutors, the defense, and witnesses.
“I’ve been in this business for 40 years, in law enforcement and corrections. I’ve been to crime scenes. I’ve seen the victims. I’ve been through the judicial process,” Liberty said.
He also said even though Maine doesn’t have parole, there are still some opportunities for prison residents to get out early.
People sentenced after 2004 get up to nine days per month off their sentence for good behavior. In the long run, that could decrease their sentence by a third.
People can also apply for the Supervised Community Confinement Program 30 months before the end of their sentence if they have a home and work lined up. If they’re approved, they can get out early, and a probation staff member oversees how they do.
“We find that the existing system with the incentives of good time and SCCP encourage individuals to get the programming and treatment they need to address their issues,” Liberty said.
Dr. Arthur Jones is a criminal justice expert who also sits on the study commission. He said Maine is one of just 16 states that abolished parole. He said he thinks parole provides a good opportunity for people to get readjusted to society successfully.
“Without some kind of supervision program that requires them to do certain things, they just slide right back into the same behavior,” Jones said, pointing to high recidivism rates.
Jones added while he believes there are good programs in Maine’s prisons, he thinks more should be done.
“If we really want to turn people around, we have to work with them. We have to trust them. We have to support them when they need support,” Jones said.
In the past, Gov. Janet Mills has said she would not support the reestablishment of parole in Maine. NEWS CENTER Maine reached out for comment on Tuesday, and her spokesperson, Lindsay Crete, sent the following statement:
“The Governor looks forward to reviewing the Commission's recommendations. While she supports criminal justice reform efforts that advance the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, consistent with their sentences as decided by a judge, she is troubled by the lack of consideration given to victims of these crimes and their families. Innocent individuals would be repeatedly subjected to the possibility that the offender will be released, forcing them to relive the crime at every parole hearing. In the push to reestablish parole, the voices of the victim, and the transparency of our individualized sentencing process, should not be ignored.”
The 131st Legislature begins on Wednesday, December 7.