A bill to restore parole in Maine passed in the House and Senate. It's been sitting on Janet Mills' desk for months
An effort to reestablish parole in Maine took a partial — but significant — step forward earlier this year when lawmakers passed a bill to study the issue. But the legislation is being held up Gov. Janet Mills, a former prosecutor and state attorney general.
In 1976, Maine became the first state to abolish parole, which is the release of someone before completion of their sentence. At the time, there was a national push for “truth in sentencing,” which called for setting specific time periods for keeping people behind bars rather than the “indeterminate” sentences of, say, one to three years in prison. And abolishing parole was touted as a way to add predictability and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system.
But restorative justice advocates as well as some attorneys say it is time for Maine to rejoin the 34 other states that offer parole.
“It’s important to give people who are incarcerated hope and reason to continue to improve and better themselves, and parole is a great tool to do that,” said Jeremy Pratt, an attorney and president-elect of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Pratt was among dozens of people who testified last spring in support of a parole bill that, as originally introduced, would have allowed people with lesser sentences to be released after serving half of their time. For example, the bill would have allowed someone serving one year to be eligible for release after six months if they had exhibited good behavior and were deemed low risk. But the bill also would have allowed people sentenced to 25 years or even to life in prison to be released after 20 years.
Lawmakers balked in the face of unified opposition from Attorney General Aaron Frey, the governor’s office and some advocates for crime victims. Instead, the House and Senate passed a modified version of the bill, L.D. 842, to create a special commission to study the issue, which Pratt and other supporters viewed as solid progress on a complex, emotionally charged issue.
“Get all of the stakeholders involved — the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the Department of Corrections, victims, families, advocates and all come together to see if we can reach a consensus on something that would benefit everyone,” Pratt said.
Pratt said he strongly supports restoring parole, but said the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers would want a seat at the commission table in part to ensure parole hearings do not become a way to rehash the crime that led to the sentence.
But that bill has been stuck in legislative limbo since July. Because it passed on the final days of a legislative session, Mills opted to hold onto it until the Legislature returns next month rather than sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature.
Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said the governor is still considering whether to sign or veto the bill.
“While she supports criminal justice reform efforts that advance the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, consistent with their sentences as decided by a judge, she is troubled by the lack of consideration given to victims of these crimes and their families,” Crete said in a statement. “Innocent individuals would be repeatedly subjected to the possibility that the offender will be released, forcing them to relive the crime at every parole hearing. In the push to reestablish parole, the voices of the victim, and the transparency of our individualized sentencing process, should not be ignored.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the governor’s position, given her background and her administration’s opposition to the bill during the committee process.
“Gov. Mills is a former prosecutor and a former attorney general, and she doesn’t believe in criminal justice reform. It’s clear,” Evangelos said.
Evangelos is a vocal critic of Maine's criminal justice system who said the system gives far too much deference to prosecutors and police — particularly when it comes to fatal police shootings — and does too little to help those in prison. In fact, Evangelos recently announced he will not seek reelection next year because he feels he can do more outside of the Legislature to change what he calls a "broken justice system."
"I used to call Maine 'Little Mississippi' because our justice system was so broken, but now that's an insult to Mississippi because they are taking measures on criminal justice reform, on truth and reconciliation for their African American population, on Innocence Project exonerations,” Evangelos said. “It's not happening here. They fight you every step of the way."
One of the people who Evangelos has worked with and whose in-prison experience shaped his views on parole is Brandon Brown, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison with all but 17 years suspended for shooting another man in the chest during a fight in Portland's Old Port in 2008. His victim is now partially paralyzed.
Brown said he grew up and changed his life in prison, even earning bachelor's and master's degrees. Mills denied his request for executive clemency last year, made so he could attend a doctoral program on restorative justice and conflict resolution at George Mason University in Virginia. But Brown was able to leave prison after 12 years last October under a different "supervised community confinement" program. He's allowed to work and pursue his doctorate remotely while living in Maine, but he's under restrictions and must keep in constant contact with his probation officer.
Brown supports parole as a way to encourage people to improve themselves through education and other means, and to reduce their likelihood of ending up back in prison.
"The only way for somebody to get parole is it to have a measurable record of change,” Brown said in a phone interview. “I've changed the behaviors that got me in prison. I've learned, I've grown. These are all things that everybody in society hopes that we get out of our prison system. And parole just happens to be mechanism that is best suited to tease those things out of people."
Others remain staunchly opposed to reestablishing parole, however.
Vance Ginn of Abbot recalled his own family’s experience during a committee hearing on Evangelos’ bill last April. Ginn’s 37-year-old daughter, Stephanie Gebo, was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend one day after his probation expired. Ginn said his grandchildren, who found their mother that day in June 2015, shouldn't ever have to live with the thought that their mother's murderer was back on the streets.
"I can't ever have my daughter back,” he told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “She will never be given parole. These most violent people, they have to stay in jail. The only way to protect the public is to keep them in jail."
Asked this week about the parole bill, Ginn said he strongly opposes reestablishing parole for people serving long sentences for serious crimes. And he urged advocates for parole to see through the eyes of crime victims.
Evangelos, meanwhile, said is he is exploring options to salvage his bill.