Statehouse Report: Maine commission on parole hears powerful testimony from both sides

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Fault lines were quickly on view Sept. 8 when the Commission to Examine Reestablishing Parole met for the first time at the Statehouse in Augusta.

After members – who include an active Superior Court judge, a public prosecutor, a defense attorney, and Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty – introduced themselves and stated positions it became clear most commissioners are in favor of recreating a parole system or are open to the possibility.

The panel also reflected the work of the criminal justice reform movement, which has demonstrated that people of color are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned at disproportionately high rates in Maine, as in other states.

Strikingly, for Maine, three commissioners are Black: Senate Chair Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, Joseph Jackson of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, and Arthur Jones, a retired criminologist who served on parole boards in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Skepticism about the advisability of parole came from Laura Yustak, an assistant attorney general. Yustak questioned how new parole provisions could be incorporated into state statutes and raised concerns about the effects on victims and their families if current prisoners become eligible for release.

The meeting was among the first fully in-person sessions by a legislative panel since COVID-19 policy became mask-optional. The study commission is convening a year later than planned, after Gov. Janet Mills held the study bill, LD 842, over the fall and winter before finally letting it become law without her signature.

Due to the delay, four of the five legislators on the 13-member commission are term-limited, and will leave office Dec. 1 – the day their report is due, just before the new Legislature convenes.

Maine abolished parole as part of a recodification of statutes in 1976, the same year the then-final authority on releases, the Executive Council, was repealed by constitutional amendment.

Michael Kebede
ACLU of Maine counsel Michael Kebede: “Think of (parole) as expanding the walls of the prison.”

Sixteen other states have since ended parole; almost all others severely restrict its use. Advocates of restoring parole point to the basic misconception that it ends a sentence while freeing the prisoner; it does not.

Michael Kebede, counsel for the ACLU of Maine, pointed out, that the original sentence continues despite release, whatever the original term. That distinguishes it from probation and early release, which cannot be applied retroactively by the Legislature since it intrudes on the governor’s powers to pardon and commute sentences.

“Think of it as expanding the walls of the prison,” Kebede said.

Parole is fully constitutional, he told the panel, an issue resolved in several Supreme Judicial Court cases. At one time, he said, 95 percent of all prison releases involved parole, but it’s now rare, following “tough on crime” legislation that flourished in both the states and Congress in the 1970s and ’80s.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, said those changes are chiefly responsible for Maine’s high number of state prisoners, many serving long terms, despite one of the nation’s lowest crime rates.

He also said that, though some governors have used their commutation powers more liberally since parole was restricted, Maine is not among them. He cannot find a single example since 1976 of a sentence being shortened by this means.

Arthur Jones, along with Kebede an invited presenter, broke some of the tension in the room with an anecdote about his early service on a New Jersey parole board.

Arthur Jones
Arthur Jones served full-time on juvenile and adult parole boards in New Jersey. He now lives in Belfast, and volunteers at the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, and is an advocate for a new parole model in Maine. (Courtesy Arthur Jones)

He was considering the case of a man from Georgia who had committed murders and served three “life sentences,” which in Georgia could last as little as seven years. After moving to New Jersey, he murdered again and came up for parole with Jones.

In a taped interview, Jones told him “I don’t want to see you again. You’ll never get parole as long as I’m on the board.”

When the defense attorney told the judge, he called the state’s attorney – and Jones – to the bench, and said, “I agree with you. But if you ever say that again, I’ll have to put you behind bars.”

More seriously, Jones said Maine could create “a state-of-the-art parole system,” with appropriate checks and balances.

The polarities emerged again when Brandon Brown and Joanna Stokinger offered testimony. 

Brown was released from Maine State Prison in late 2020 after serving 12 years for attempted murder. He’s completing his dissertation for a doctorate at George Mason, something he couldn’t do behind bars. Mills twice rejected his clemency petitions.

Since his release, Brown has become an adjunct professor at the University of Maine at Augusta and Colby College.

“I couldn’t do any of these things while incarcerated,” he told the commission. Instead, he “saw the hopelessness of others” who had no chance of release.

Brown also attempted to address the concerns of victims of crime. “Harm causes ripples,” he said. “In my experience, having someone sentenced does not bring peace.”

Stokinger, who served as a victim’s advocate at the Department of Corrections and then in the attorney general’s office, said parole is “believed to be a human right” – but she has doubts. One of her grandparents was recently murdered, and she had to resign her position while preparing for the trial.

“I couldn’t handle the grief and keep my job,” she said.

Earlier, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the House chair, said “We are all perpetrators of crime, and we are all victims of crime.” She said “I’ve broken a few laws in my time,” producing chuckles.

Then she revealed, for the first time in public, that 19 years ago her father was killed by a young woman driving 100 mph whose car crossed the center line.

How the commissioners are able to deal with and meld these powerful narratives may provide the key to whether they’re able to provide a unanimous report.

One of their next sessions will be at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where most of those who would be eligible for parole are imprisoned. Liberty said that should be possible, and arrangements will also be made for women imprisoned in Windham to attend.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].