Politics & Other Mistakes: Fulsome prison blues

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Consider the plight of a convicted felon incarcerated for a serious crime, such as murder, armed robbery, or attempting to overturn the results of a free and fair election by encouraging an insurrection.

If those types of criminals are serving time in Maine’s prisons, they’re going to be behind bars for a long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives. That’s because this state doesn’t offer the option of parole.

Al DiamonMaine used to distribute get-out-of-jail-free cards, but by 1975, there was considerable public discontent with the number of those passes that were being issued. The state parole board was seen as arbitrary in deciding who didn’t have to serve their full sentences. The Legislature passed and independent Gov. James Longley signed a bill making this state the first to abolish parole.

In its place, judges were directed to impose definite sentences. The guilty would have to serve their full terms with no hope of reprieve.

Except they didn’t.

Inmates became eligible for something called “good time.” So long as they were reasonably well behaved, they could knock nearly a third off their sentences. To compensate for that giveaway, judges started imposing harsher penalties. If a justice figured a defendant should serve seven years in the iron hotel, the gavel came down on a 10-year term, which amounted to the same thing.

This system and the tough-on-crime attitude of many politicians caused prison populations to swell, although Maine also continued to enjoy one of the lowest crime rates in the country. For anybody who wasn’t actually in prison (politicians, for instance), everything was working out pretty well.

That didn’t mean there weren’t some reformers out there who still believed parole was a good idea. In the 1990s, they pushed bills to restore it as a way to ease prison overcrowding. In 2016, there was even an unsuccessful attempt to put the idea out to referendum. Last year, a bill to reinstitute parole passed the state House but failed in the Senate.

The sponsor of the legislation, independent state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship, then revised the measure to create a committee to study parole. After considerable fumbling about, it became law without the governor’s signature. The committee began meeting in July, but has only five months to produce a report.

Here’s hoping that the short timeframe and the considerable ideological disagreements among committee members will result in it recommending nothing of substance.

There’s no real evidence the current system isn’t working well enough. Parole advocates are quick to point to a couple of inmates who have seemingly turned their lives around, earned college degrees, and are kind to animals. But there’s no indication the majority of the prison population has done anything that might make them deserving of reduced punishment.

Still, there’s no reason to be heartless. Against the odds, some offenders do become rehabilitated while in prison, so there should be some mechanism for dealing with these outliers. And there is. In fact, there are two.

The first is called commutation. Maine’s governor has the authority to commute sentences to the time served. It’s a power that’s rarely used. If you don’t count Republican Gov. Paul LePage having a temper tantrum in 2017 and issuing 17 commutations for inmates at a Machiasport correctional facility after his attempts to close the place were blocked, more rational chief executives approved an average of fewer than three such requests each year.

It’s not an easy route to get out of prison. But then, it’s not supposed to be.

The other possibility for the allegedly reformed prisoner is called “supervised community confinement.” To qualify, an inmate must have served most of his or her sentence and be classified as minimum security. If approved by corrections officials, these model prisoners can complete the remainder of their sentences in the outside world, as long as they submit to random drug tests, weekly visits with probation officers, and maintain a stable schedule of work or education.

If this seems to be more or less the same thing as parole, you’re probably not far off.

Hat tip to Will Grunewald at Down East magazine for his reporting on this issue. Sentences, both long and short, may be emailed to [email protected].