Lawmakers hear passionate debate over restoring parole in Maine
Advocates said parole is the hope incarcerated people need to better their lives and become productive, but opponents say it will only cause additional trauma to victims and survivors of violent crimes.
Lawmakers heard hours of testimony in support of a bill that would reinstate parole, allowing incarcerated people to be released before the end of their sentence with the permission of a parole board that would consider input from victims.
A diverse group of more than 100 advocates argued that parole would provide hope for incarcerated people and provide an incentive for them to engage in the Maine Department of Corrections’ nationally recognized rehabilitation programs, saying parole could improve relations between prisoners and guards. But opponents worried that victims would be retraumatized during parole hearings.
The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said her group supports the bill, drawing parallels with themes expressed in church. She said she was struck by how the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, with which her group partners, uses words like redemption, hope, restoration, community and transformation.
“Churches use words like these because our faith-based moral compass points us toward affirming the inherent worth of every human being, toward sustaining a fundamental commitment to the dignity and humane treatment of everyone in our society, including those who are incarcerated, and toward advocating for justice and compassion in our social order,” Field said.
Opponents, including victims, advocates for victims, and survivors of domestic and sexual assault and Attorney General Aaron Frey, who waited more than six hours to testify, argued that the parole process would only retraumatize victims, and people seeking to renter the community would lack the services needed to avoid reoffending.
Andrea Mancuso, the public policy director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said the proposal doesn’t go far enough to provide support to victims, including allowing for remote participation.
Supporters framed parole as a cost-saving measure, saying it costs $76,000 a year to incarcerate one person. But Mancuso said it would take a significant state investment in community services for parolees, victims and communities for parole to be successful and produce any savings.
“We believe effective criminal justice reform costs more before it costs less, and L.D. 178 does not address the need of state investment in critical infrastructure,” she said.
Nobody from the Department of Corrections testified in-person before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, though Commissioner Randall Liberty submitted written testimony against the bill. The lack of attendance before the committee irritated at least one lawmaker, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland.
“I find it a little bit irksome nobody from the department could be here to have a dialogue with us today,” Lookner said at the end of the seven-hour hearing. “We all deserve better.”
The committee heard testimony on a bill, sponsored by co-chair Sen. Anne Beebe-Center, D-Rockland. Her bill was originally submitted as a placeholder bill, known as a concept draft, and the details were not released until last week, which was not enough time for some groups, such as the Wabankai Women’s Coalition, to formulate a position.
Maine is one of only 16 states – and the only state in New England – that does not grant parole. It was the first state in the country to end its parole program in 1976. Only inmates sentenced before May 1, 1976, are currently eligible for parole.
SOME EARLY RELEASE PROGRAMS
Maine, however, has some early release programs. The Supervised Community Confinement Program was started in the 1990s and is now open to those with 30 months or less left on their sentence. Participants are approved to go to supervised sober living or other treatment programs.
The proposal, which grows out of a study commission, would establish a seven-member parole board to decide who has earned supervised release before the end of their prison sentence. The board would have at least one mental health professional, one legal professional and one member with direct experience in the justice system, but would not require a victim representative.
To be eligible under the proposal, a person must first serve at least 20 years of a life sentence or one-third of a sentence from one to 60 years. And the board must find the individual is unlikely to violate the law and that granting parole “is not incompatible with the welfare of society.”
Richard Harburger, who chairs the current Maine Parole Board, supports the proposal. In his more than two decades of service on the board, he could only recall parolees returning to jail for “mostly technical violations,” such as drinking, doing drugs or being someplace they should not have been.
“In my 24-year history, I don’t think I have seen anybody come back having committed a violent crime or having committed another felony crime,” Harburger said.
Advocates were given the first six hours to make their case. Many read testimony from people currently incarcerated who were engaged in nationally recognized jail programs, including gardening and beekeeping, and those who have pursued educational opportunities, ranging from earning high school diplomas to undergraduate and masters degrees from colleges.
Advocates said parole could provide an incentive for people to engage in these programs, become rehabilitated and have structured reentry into society, rather than simply waiting out their sentences and reentering society without the needed support or skills.
Several people used Leo Hylton as an example of rehabilitation. In written testimony, Hylton said he’s been incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren for 15 of his 32 years for nearly killing two people in a home burglary attempt.
“This is the reality that I live with every day,” wrote Hylton, who said he’s since earned his GED, associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and has been accepted into a Ph.D. program. “This is the harm that I cannot undo, the harm that I strive everyday to counterbalance.”
But Hylton’s victims, William Guerrette and his daughter, see things differently. Guerrette said both he and his daughter have irreparable brain injuries, and his daughter’s childhood and sense of safety were stolen from her.
My life and the life of my daughter have been irreparably damaged by a brutal home invasion and attempted murder by machete at the hands of a name I have heard far too much today,” Guerrette said, adding that his daughter survived after being declared dead at the scene. “To bring back parole will again victimize my family. Please don’t be a part of that.”
Gov. Janet Mills has been opposed to previous efforts to restore parole, and Liberty, the corrections commissioner, submitted testimony in opposition, saying that the state already has several tools available to reduce jail sentences. Those programs include reduced time for good behavior, suspended sentencing and a supervised community confinement program, which is available to some people nearing the end of their sentences.
“If the end goal of those supporting this bill is to provide early release for rehabilitated residents, then the bill attempts to solve a problem that already has a solution,” Liberty said. “A solution that is codified into law and functioning quite well.”
But one word – hope – was a reoccurring theme for supporters.
“Hope is an elixir of good behavior,” said former state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, who served on the parole study commission and said parole can improve relationships between those in jail and prison guards. “It’s so ironic. We have the best programming in the nation, but it doesn’t amount to anything – it doesn’t result in that second chance to become a productive member of society.”