Commission to discuss possibility of reestablishing parole in Maine

Maine abolished parole in 1976, and is one of 16 states that does not allow it


By Emily Allen
Portland Press Herald, Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state commission that has been asked to study reestablishing parole in Maine is set to begin its work soon, but some in favor of the reform fear that public officials with old attitudes toward alternative sentencing will stymie their efforts.

Maine lawmakers agreed in February to create the commission, which will work until December studying such issues as how parole works in other states, how it would fit into the Maine Criminal Code, various forms of parole, and its costs and benefits — both financially and for individual prisoners. By the start of December, the 13-member panel must issue a report with recommendations and suggested legislation.

Maine abolished parole in 1976, and is one of 16 states that does not allow it.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, who has pushed to reform Maine's criminal justice system, wrote the original legislation as "An Act to Reestablish Parole." But the Maine Senate amended the bill to focus on studying the idea.

Evangelos, who is on the newly formed commission, said the Senate made its decision based on inaccurate, "deceptive" testimony from Maine's attorney general. Aaron Frey told lawmakers last spring that he opposed the bill on various grounds including because the parole board's power to grant parole would overlap with the governor's authority to grant clemency — which he suggested would interfere with the separation of powers laid out in the state's constitution.

Roughly 70 people filed public testimony to the Judiciary Committee while lawmakers were considering the bill in 2021. They included the formerly and currently incarcerated, defense attorneys, advocates for criminal justice reform, and people who have lost loved ones to violent crime.

In his own testimony, Evangelos said parole would offer incarcerated Mainers the opportunity to use some of the reentry skills they've learned from programs in prison. He said it could offer a second chance to incarcerated Mainers who committed a serious crime when they were much younger and who were sentenced to 20 or 30 years.

A few comments supporting parole came from family members who said their loved ones have been incarcerated for far too long. These letters were met by a handful of statements from parents and siblings who lost loved ones to murder, and who told lawmakers they opposed bringing back parole.

In his testimony, Frey also spoke of these victims and their families.

"Reestablishing parole will have a significant impact on victims and surviving family members of homicide victims," Frey wrote. "Whenever an individual is eligible for parole, the parole board conducts a hearing where victims relive the trauma of the crime with limited certainty or finality the proceeding. Additionally, parole proceedings often leave victims and surviving family members with uncertainty about when the offender will actually be released from incarceration."

Notably, the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence said it was neither in support of nor against bringing back parole — instead, it acknowledged that an "overwhelming majority of those who commit crimes in Maine each year are people who will, at some point, again live in our communities," and said that the state needs more rehabilitation programs that truly work to prevent people from committing further violence when they are released.

Kimora, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who goes by one name, teaches students about corrections and has worked with "thousands" of parolees in New York over the last 22 years. While she argues that parole is a "very necessary and productive" way to reintroduce a person to society, she said parole only works for its participants and victims of violent crimes if the people being paroled are being closely monitored.

They also need their basic needs met — in housing, employment, and health care or treatment for substance use disorder.

"These are human beings who erred. They need another chance in life," Kimora said. "A lot of the people who get out really want to change for the better. They want the work, they want to provide for their families. They want to change."

Arthur Jones, who is on the new Maine commission, said resistance to parole is often based on the notion that it lets prisoners go free early. But it's more nuanced than that, said the former professor of criminal justice at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and the Kaiser Graduate School in Fort Lauderdale, who has served on parole boards in Providence and in New Jersey.

"The thing about parole, is that parole is an opportunity for the inmate to serve the remainder of their time in the community, under the supervision of a parole officer," said Jones. "A lot of people misconstrue this — they think that parole is terminating a sentence. It's not."

Jones, who came to Maine in retirement, spent 28 years working for the New Jersey Department of Corrections as its assistant director of education. He said he was also administrator of the state's "scared straight" program, which showed young people what life was like in prisons in an attempt to keep them from ending up there.

Jones spent a little more than half his career in New Jersey on the state's parole board, where he considered thousands of requests from juveniles and adults in state correctional facilities. Over time, he said, he deepened his understanding of what makes a parole program successful and what can hamper successful reentry into society.

Rehabilitation programs — including those for substance use disorder — need to be readily available in state correctional facilities before a person even applies for parole, Jones said. Once released, parolees need affordable access to similar programs. Parole officers overseeing released prisoners need to be attentive and know how to connect their parolees to employment and housing.

"We can parole all the people in the world. If they don't have the help of the community, they're going to be back in there in another three to four months," Jones said.

Jones said he's hoping the commission will consider what's made programs in other states successful, in addition to hearing from people who have been incarcerated and victims of crime. Jones also serves on a group in Belfast called Restorative Justice Project Maine, which advocates for a process in which victims voluntarily agree to meet with the people who harmed them to discuss what happened with a mediator present and to come up with ways to repair at least some of the harm done.

The 13 members of the commission that will study parole include lawmakers from both parties and chambers, a representative of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, a local prosecutor, advocates for criminal justice reform and a representative of the Maine attorney general's office.

Frey appointed Assistant Attorney General Laura Yustak to serve. Both Frey and Yustak, through a spokesperson, declined to discuss their expectations for the commission or thoughts on parole.

"There are lots of folks on the commission who haven't weighed in yet on why or whether they want parole," said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D- Hallowell, who will co-chair the commission, as she does the Legislature's Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Warren said she plans for the group to hold its first official meeting in early September.

"Personally, I believe in the power of people to change. I look at this system as hopefully creating citizens that we want to return to our communities," Warren said. "But I'm encouraging everyone to show up and set aside where they are today, to attempt to tackle this study with curiosity."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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