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Is prison a place for punishment or rehabilitation? That is the question at the heart of a debate in the Maine Legislature over a bill to revive parole in the state.
To answer that question, consider that almost every person incarcerated in Maine will one day return to their communities, their families and maybe their workplaces. Given this reality, ensuring those who are incarcerated receive the counseling, education and other support they need must be a priority.
Parole can be one piece of this puzzle.
Maine eliminated parole in 1976, the first state to do so. The change was part of a movement toward what was called “truth in sentencing.” Maine is now one of just 16 states that do not have parole.
Since then the pendulum has swung back toward a focus on rehabilitation, which is welcome. But both supporters and opponents of resuming parole say Maine lacks the rehabilitative services needed to help inmates prepare for life outside of prison.
While attention and resources need to be devoted to building and supporting such programs, a lack of services can’t be a default reason for simply keeping people incarcerated in the instances when they have proven the ability to rejoin society.
So while we support a resumption of parole in Maine, it must be accompanied by a strengthening and broadening of services needed to ensure those released from correctional facilities have access to the services they need to reintegrate into their communities.
This was essentially the conclusion of a committee created last year to consider whether Maine should resume its parole program. While the committee, which included lawmakers, a district attorney, Maine’s corrections commissioner, prisoner advocates and others, recommended a resumption of parole, there were many caveats. First, the vote on that recommendation was not unanimous. Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and Rep. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, voted against it. Four other members of the group abstained from the vote, including an assistant attorney general and district attorney.
Second, the group’s report also called for strengthening other types of early release programs.
The group made it clear that if parole is reestablished in Maine, clear standards for obtaining parole, along with support for victims, are needed. We agree.
“lf we truly believe that the Judicial System was created as a way for people who committed crimes to pay off their debt, learn to assimilate into society and rehabilitate, we need to offer parole as an option for people who are doing the hard work of making positive change in their lives,” Nikole Powell said in testimony in support of the bill.
Powell is an inmate participating in the Supervised Community Confinement Program, which allows inmates nearing the end of their sentences to live outside of a correctional facility. Powell is in recovery from substance use disorder and has become a peer counselor and managed a sober home. She’s also enrolled in college.
The confinement program is a model for, but not a replacement for, parole. Participation in the program is limited and participants are chosen by Department of Corrections staff. Most participants are in the last six months of their sentence.
Under LD 178, those who go before a parole board would have to document a plan for their housing, employment and mental health and substance use disorder treatment, if needed. They also would have to show a record of good behavior and rehabilitation while incarcerated. The parole board would include experts in mental health, substance use and other pertinent areas. Critically, testimony from victims of the crimes committed by those seeking parole would be considered as well.
Maine actually still has a parole board and a handful of prisoners who are eligible for parole because they were sentenced before the 1976 law change. Richard Harburger of Brewer chairs the board. He testified in support of LD 178 last month. He said that parole gives inmates who meet the criteria for parole, which he emphasized is only a portion of those in custody, an avenue for release rather than having to “wait out” their sentences.
“History has shown us that the longer an inmate remains in jail the more likely it is that that inmate will return to the criminal justice system,” he said.
Nationally, those who are on parole are less likely to commit another crime than those who are simply released from detention when their sentence ends, according to a review in New Jersey.
A system of parole could also help prison overcrowding and save money. Rather than the cost of incarceration, which is about $78,000 a year at Maine Department of Corrections facilities, inmates who are paroled may be able to live at home and to work, contributing to their families and their communities.