Statehouse Report: Parole restoration hits pothole

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Legislation to bring back parole to Maine’s correctional system is hanging by a thread, after the Senate refused to consider a majority report from the Judiciary Committee that would study the issue for the 2022 session.

The Senate’s parliamentary action, almost unheard of, came after initial House success. The House debated and approved two versions of LD 842: the study, and the original amended bill, which would make current inmates eligible for parole hearings.

The parole bill is considered a major criminal justice reform effort, along with bail reform, drug possession penalties, pre-trial confinement, and attorneys for indigent defendants – all up for final votes this month.

Maine was the first state to abolish parole, in 1976, followed by 15 other states; it would be the first to reinstate it.

The sponsor of LD 842, Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, acknowledged before the June 17 vote that the original bill was unlikely to pass. But after he addressed the House, lawmakers unexpectedly voted 76-62 in favor.

He asked, “Are we running the Department of Incarceration and Punishment, or are we operating a real Corrections and improvement system, a system that allows a person to reenter society as a productive individual?” Afterward, he said, “I convinced them.”

When supporters spread the word, Evangelos said inmates at the maximum-security prison in Warren were overjoyed: “For about eight hours, they had hope.”

The Senate, however, voted without debate to reject the bill, 27-7, with most Democrats opposed. It returned to the House, which approved the study commission by a larger margin, 83-49.

But when the Senate took up the bill a second time the following day, Judiciary Chair Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, didn’t support the study – even though she and all the senators on the committee had previously endorsed it.

Instead, Majority Leader Sen. Eloise Vitelli moved to kill the bill, and Senate President Troy Jackson gaveled the motion through. Minutes before the June 18 adjournment, however, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau acted to keep it alive.

Neither Vitelli nor Jackson responded to inquiries, but via e-mail, Carney said, “I will be reviewing the committee reports again and giving them consideration before deciding which report to move.”

Lawmakers return on June 30. If the Senate doesn’t reconsider its action the bill will die and can’t be resubmitted before 2023.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His latest book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit  douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail [email protected].