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Courts and Crime

'I Believe In Redemption' — Maine Lawmakers Consider Reinstating Parole

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Elizabeth Noble
/
For Maine Public
Maine State Prison in Warren in 2013.

Maine lawmakers are considering reestablishing parole 45 years after it was abolished as truth-in-sentencing laws swept the country.

The laws were intended to reassure the public that violent offenders would remain behind bars.

But times have changed. Maine is now the only state in New England without parole. Factor in the state's low crime rate and the push for criminal justice reform and even some former opponents say they are warming up to the idea — although powerful opponents remain.

Maine is one 16 states that abolished or severely restricted parole beginning in the 1970s. Unlike probation, which spells out terms of community supervision at the time of sentencing, parole comes later, after a portion of the sentence has been served. It allows someone who has exemplified good behavior and made progress in treatment to be released from prison with supervision under certain conditions.

Without parole, state Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship says the corrections system is broken because people serving long prison sentences have no hope. He has gotten to know some of them through regular visits to the Maine State Prison.

"I believe in the dignity of people. You know, I believe in second chances. I believe in accountability and most importantly I believe in redemption," he says.

Speaking at a recent public hearing on a bill to reestablish parole, Evangelos said it would make people who serve prison sentences now and in the future eligible for a parole hearing if they have served at least 20 years of a sentence of 25 years or more. It would include people serving life. Those with shorter sentences would be required to serve half their time in order to qualify.

"Yes, I feel deeply for the victims as well, but society is not made safer when Maine's corrections system frustrates hopes and redemption," Evangelos says.

According to The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy, "tough on crime" policies have expanded the types of offenses that result in life sentences, including those of at least 50 years. Nationwide, 203,000 people meet those criteria. In Maine, the number is 122, or about 6% of the prison population.

"Everyone should at least have some review. You know, particularly given the length of confinement that people are subjected to in the United States," says Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project.

Porter says her group has a campaign to end life sentences, which disproportionately affect people of color. Other suggested remedies include parole and so-called "second look" sentencing, which allows courts to reevaluate a person's sentence after a significant amount of time has been served.

But Porter is quick to acknowledge that getting parole legislation passed is tough. There's always the fear that someone on parole will commit a violent crime. And there is also consideration of victims and families like Vicki Dill's.

"My family and I go through sleepless nights, fear, anxiety, nervousness, lack of eating and trauma of that day every five years," she says.

Dill was just ten years old when her older, teenage sister, Debra, was murdered in 1973. The man convicted of the crime was sentenced before Maine did away with parole. He's one of four people incarcerated in the state prison system who remains under the jurisdiction of the state parole board. It's also why his case is periodically reviewed.

Dill urged members of the Judiciary Committee to reject the bill.

"This is very trying in our family and it's cruel at best. Considering this legislation will just add unnecessary anxiety to more families should it be passed into law," she says.

Opponents include members of the Maine chapter of the group Parents of Murdered Children along with Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey and Gov. Janet Mills. Through written testimony, the governor suggested that a judge who sat through a trial and heard evidence is in a better position than a parole board to decide an appropriate sentence.

But missing from the usual list of opponents to parole legislation were several organizations representing victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Instead, they testified neither for nor against the bill.

"After many long conversations, both internally within our organization and with Maine Sexual Assault Support Centers, I think we have come to a place where we could see a parole system that we could get behind," says Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Sexual Assault Coalition.

Saxl says the bill in its current form is not one she could support. She has questions about the process for victim input and risk assessment. Incarcerated individuals were not permitted to testify at the virtual hearing. Instead, they were represented by friends and family members who spoke about the capacity of people to change.

"Leo has worked diligently to rise from a truly dark place. He's now a light in this world again," says Colombe Thazra-Rosie Hylton, the sister of Leo Hylton, who has served 13 years of a 40-year sentence.

During that time Colombe says her brother has volunteered with the prison hospice program, become a mentor for other people in prison, become a regular columnist for the Mainer and is currently working on a master's degree in restorative justice.

Hylton supports the bill, she says, not just so her aging mother can hug him again as a free man but so Leo can share with the world what he has learned in prison.