The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Usually, it is a good idea for someone to listen to their lawyer. Maine just learned that the hard way, to the tune of $200,000.

Back in 2020, Gov. Janet Mills ordered that unemployment benefits be halted from going to Maine state prisoners who lost their private sector work release jobs due to the pandemic. Mills called these payments “appalling” and “bad public policy.” Inmates then sued Mills, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in federal court.

We were never convinced that work release inmates receiving these pandemic benefits was bad policy. Bad politics? Maybe. There isn’t exactly a strong voting constituency centered around protecting prisoner rights. But there has always been a good policy argument for providing these benefits during the pandemic disruption.

“The purpose of the work release program and unemployment benefits is to ensure incarcerated people have access to financial security and employment when they return to their communities,” Carol Garvan, the legal director at the ACLU of Maine, said in a recent press release. “Our communities are safer when formerly incarcerated people have a foundation for a successful return home.”

In March 2021, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker granted a motion from the state to dismiss the lawsuit. That ruling was appealed, with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing oral arguments in January of this year.

That recent ACLU press release followed a settlement between the state and the group of 53 prisoners who had been on work release. Without admitting error, the state has agreed to return collective benefits of more than $160,000 that it had seized. In addition, the state will pay $200,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

So essentially, the state waited roughly two years and is paying an extra $200,000 of the public’s money to do what it should have done all along.

This was avoidable. Maine Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski advised at the start of all this that the benefits were legal, but the Mills administration went forward with this misguided approach anyway. And the public is now left paying for that mistake.

“Everyone — including an incarcerated worker — is entitled to equal protection and fair treatment under the law,” David Webbert, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in that same ACLU press release. “The settlement helps ensure that the state treats every Mainer with respect and dignity and that we don’t have any second-class people with second-class rights.”

None of this is to excuse the work release prisoners for the crimes they committed. For example, lead plaintiff Marc Sparks  was sentenced in September 2015 to 10 years in prison with all but two years suspended after pleading no contest to charges that he was driving under the influence of methadone when he crashed his car into another vehicle. The other driver died six days later. We’re not pretending that didn’t happen.

But the same rule of law that saw Sparks and others imprisoned for their crimes also protects their rights. It is good to see those rights finally recognized through this settlement.

Unfortunately, there was an extra expense of $200,000 that could have been avoided if the Mills administration had just listened to the legal advice it received early on.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...