Eliot Cutler sits in a courtroom at the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court in Ellsworth on May 4, 2023. The lawyer who used his personal wealth to bankroll two unsuccessful runs for governor has pleaded guilty to possession of thousands of images of child sexual abuse. A plea agreement calls for Cutler to serve nine months in jail for four counts of possessing sexually explicit material of a child under 12. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

What is the purpose of a criminal justice system?

I don’t ask that rhetorically. There are numerous ongoing debates on the subject, both in Augusta and nationally. But we can’t forge a path forward until we know what destination we are trying to reach.

Is it meant to be retributive against the perpetrator? Some sort of Hammurabic “eye for an eye” punishment?

Should be it restorative, focused on repairing the damage done to the victim?

Is the goal rehabilitation to make the offender a productive member of society? To reduce recidivism so they do not do the same thing again?

Are penalties meant to dissuade others from the same path, or do we lock people up to keep society safer for a period of time?

Does the answer depend on the type of crime that was committed?

The Eliot Cutler and Joseph Eaton sagas have brought this debate into sharp relief.

Last week, the details of Eliot Cutler’s plea deal were unveiled. He pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and agreed to spend nine months behind bars and pay $5,000 to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

People were aghast at the sentence. One Bangor Daily News columnist asked the judge presiding over his case to reject the deal. Letter writers agreed, while the Bangor Daily News’ editorial board was “shocked and outraged” at what seemed to be a light sentence.  

Yet, diving beyond the headlines, it appears that Cutler’s sentence was on the steep side. The average jail time for similar cases in Maine is six months. Cutler may have had a much higher profile, but the crime itself is equally heinous regardless of who the perpetrator might be.

That leads to the real question: Why do Maine’s sentences for these crimes seem to be so light?

The other major story dealt with Joseph Eaton, the person who police say admitted to killing his parents and their friends a few weeks ago in Bowdoin. He was a repeat offender, an ex-felon. He had his probation revoked and was sent back to prison in 2021.

While incarcerated, he attacked another inmate, a convicted murderer. For that in-prison assault, he was sentenced to eight months in prison. He was released on April 14, only to allegedly kill his parents a few days later.

These two cases require us to face some difficult questions. Why is Cutler going in for what seems to be a short time? Why was Eaton released after committing crimes of violence over and over again?

Locking Cutler up is not restorative; it does nothing to address the unspeakable horrors the child victims have faced. It isn’t likely necessary to rehabilitate him, as he is an older man likely in the twilight of his life. A psychiatrist has said his likelihood of reoffending is practically nonexistent.

The outrage at his plea bargain apparently arises from the moral reaction most people have about the gravity of his crimes. They are so far beyond the pale, they need to be punished. It is that simple.

In that vein, retribution is part of our criminal justice system. Accepting that it has a role to play is integral to any conversations about reform.  

Meanwhile, in times past, Eaton likely could have found himself committed to a mental health institution after serving his sentence. Well-adjusted people do not commit violence against children (one of his prior convictions), nor do they kill their parents.  

Those facilities went away over the past several decades as a result of an intentional policy of deinstitutionalization. In 1955, there were nearly 560,000 people in public psychiatric hospitals across the country, or 337 for every 100,000 Americans. In 2016, the latter number had fallen to 11 per 100,000.  

Many of those former patients have since found themselves in prison, homeless or both. Is the purpose of our criminal justice system really to rehabilitate the mentally ill? Is its purpose to deal with the housing crisis?

Of course not. But it is also okay to recognize that there are some people who are so violent and mentally unfit that society needs to be protected from them.  

As the Legislature looks at criminal justice reform, it needs to be clear about the ultimate purpose of the system. And it may need to make some hard decisions on locking people up longer, whether to get them help or to express outrage at the heinousness of a crime.  

And, in it all, lawmakers need to fund a system capable of meeting the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of a speedy trial. Because that certainly is a purpose of our criminal justice system.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.