The latest and most determined effort to return a parole system to Maine prompted a marathon hearing that spanned more than eight hours Monday, March 13, before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Proponents of reestablishing a parole system in the state dominated the proceedings on LD 178, with nearly seven hours of testimony from legislators and former legislators, prisoner advocacy organizations, victim’s rights groups, and many recently released or current inmates, the latter having their statements read by others.
Opposition came from domestic violence and sexual assault protection groups, and from the Attorney General’s office.
Reinstatement of parole — which Maine abolished in 1976, the first of 16 states to do so — was a majority recommendation of a 2022 study commission.
Under the bill’s terms, parole would be offered to all of those sentenced, including current inmates, after they’ve served one third of their sentences. Hearings would be conducted by a seven-member board of professionals with expertise in law, sociology, psychology and criminal justice.
Former Rep. Jeff Evangelos, whose bill authorized the study commission, testified in favor, and spoke of several visits to the men’s prison in Warren and the women’s prison in Windham.
He sounded a theme heard throughout the day by saying that hope can be restored through parole — something missing for all those serving decades-long sentences without any chance of release.
“Hope is the elixir for rehabilitation,” he said.
Evangelos broke down while reading a letter from a woman at Windham who spoke of the benefits for her fellow inmates, but said for her, “They should bring back the death penalty. It would be less cruel.”
Dr. Arthur Jackson, a criminologist and former parole board member in New Jersey and Rhode Island, said long-term prisoners tend to deteriorate after 20 to 25 years, especially without any possibility of release.
Other speakers said that victim’s families, even when murder is involved, often prefer shorter sentences combined with treatment, rather than maximum sentences with no follow up.
Jeremy Pratt, president of Maine Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Maine statutes don’t permit supervision following release from a murder conviction.
The Department of Corrections already administers several early release programs, and “good time” provisions can reduce time served, but parole would be the responsibility of the independent board.
Brandon Brown, who helped write an early release statue while incarcerated and then was the first to whom it applied, sparred with Republican committee members over their contentions that current early release programs and “good time” provisions made parole unnecessary.
Doug Dunbar, a former press secretary for the U.S. Representative John Baldacci in the ‘90s who later fell into substance use disorder and was convicted of two felonies, had similar exchanges with Rep. Chad Perkins (R-Dover-Foxcroft), who insisted that Dunbar acknowledge that all those incarcerated were guilty of a crime.
“The one thing the legal system consistently achieves is that defendants remain entangled with the police, the courts, the jails, even long after release. What a waste of resources,” Dunbar said, adding that treatment and support for “diseases of despair” is far more effective.
Sexual assault prevention groups, testifying in opposition, said parole would force victims to relive trauma any time a case came up for review. Rep. Nina Milliken (D-Blue Hill) pointed out that, with such sentences generally short, such instances would be relatively rare.
Attorney General Aaron Frey reiterated concerns his office raised previously in opposing parole, including whether it would violate “truth in sentencing” requirements. He also contended applying parole retroactively could be unconstitutional.
During the earlier commission hearings, parole’s constitutionality was affirmed by Michael Kebede of ACLU Maine, who said parole doesn’t change the sentence, which must be served in full. Parole only changes the venue of the incarcerated person, from inside to outside prison walls.
Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty didn’t testify, though he was outside the hearing room off and on during much of the day. Liberty did say earlier that DOC was open to further expanding early release, while still opposing parole.
Liberty’s non-appearance annoyed Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), who said he’d looked forward to questioning him.
That now appears likely to happen at the committee’s work session on the bill, which has not yet been scheduled.
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at [email protected]