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Maine lawmakers hear hours of testimony on parole bill

House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
House representatives look up to see how their colleagues voted on a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

State lawmakers heard hours of testimony today in support of a bill to reestablish parole in Maine.

Maine became the first state in the nation to abolish parole in 1976 as part of what would become a national “truth in sentencing” movement. But more than 45 years later, criminal justice reform advocates say it is time for Maine to reverse course and join the 34 other states that have some form of parole.

"Re-establishing parole is good for Maine. It's good for everybody,” Joseph Jackson, executive director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and numerous other groups that works on behalf of incarcerated individuals and those just released.

Jackson spent more than 20 years incarcerated in Maine but has been free for nearly a decade. He also served on a commission created by the Legislature that recommended that Maine once again establish another form of early release program, overseen by a parole board who would hear requests for parole from individuals.

Jackson said data clearly show that parole offers incarcerated individuals additional incentives to get an education or improve themselves. Speaking to members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committe, Jackson said only 5% of the people who have graduated from Maine State Prison's college degree program have ended up back in jail versus more than 60% for the general jail population.

"The reason (parole) is good is because we have created a structure of accountability that really doesn't work and hasn't worked in a long time,” Jackson said. “Any CEO of a corporation that had a failure rate of 70 percent within five years would have lost that job a long, long time ago and we would have done something about it. It's time for us to do something about this."

There are programs in place that allow some residents of Maine's prisons to gain early release. The Supervised Community Confinement Program, for instance, allows those with 30 months or less on their sentence to be discharged to supervised living facilities.

Nikole Powell said she has been thriving in that program since last May. But she knows many people in jail who have been improving themselves and serving others who can't qualify because they have too much left on their sentences or because they were convicted of certain crimes.

"I believe that everybody deserves a second chance,” Powell said. “If we truly believe that the judicial system was created as a way for people who committed cimres to pay off their debt, learn to assimilate into society and rehabilitate, we need to offer parole as an option for the people who are doing the hard work and making positive change in their lives."

The bill is opposed by the Mills administration as well as some advocates for crime victims and their families, who say parole hearings can re-open wounds and re-subject them to trauma.

Andrea Mancuso with the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence testified on Monday that the state has an obligation to make sure the rights of crime victims are valued and taken into account during any parole process. Mancuso said “this proposal tends meaningfully to none of that.” For instance, there is no language in the proposal to guarantee victims or their family members to testify in a separate facility than where the perpetrator is being held.

“You have heard from many today in the custody of the Maine Department of Corrections,” Mancuso said. “You have not heard from many of their victims, from the children who are being raised by grandparents because one of their parents murdered the other, from the grandparents who are raising these children while still recovering from their own loss. There should be no expectation of this committee that crime victims and their families will rip open the wounds they are trying to heal to participate here in order to have you consider them, their pain and trauma and their need to have peace to rebuild their lives.”

No one from the Maine Department of Corrections participate in Monday’s public hearing.