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The last prisoner eligible under Maine's old parole system is granted it

The Maine State Prison in Warren.
Ashley L. Conti
via the Bangor Daily News
The Maine State Prison in Warren.

The last person incarcerated in Maine who is eligible for parole was granted it Friday as the fate of a reform bill looks uncertain.

Steven Clark has been in and out of prison since he was first convicted in 1975. Clark, originally from Union, was convicted of murdering the child of a family friend when he was 21-years-old. Local reports describe the case as one of the most divisive Knox County had ever seen. The county had a difficult time finding unprejudiced jurors because the case was extensively covered by local media.

He was granted parole a few times; once after serving 15 years in prison. But subsequent convictions kept landing him back behind bars, most recently in 2018 after he pleaded guilty to terrorizing and refusing to submit to arrest, according to state criminal records. He was denied parole in that same year.

Prior to this year, Richard Harburger, a former parole officer who has served on Maine's parole board for over 20 years, said Clark was clearly not ready for reintegration into society five years ago. But people can change, he said.

"The issues that we've denied on him five years ago, were issues that he had dealt with and come to terms with and to our satisfaction, " he said. "...We believe that people are entitled to a chance."

Maine abolished parole in 1976 and is one of 16 states that do not allow it. But those who were convicted before the law changed are still able to apply for parole under the old system.

Parole meetings are not public and Harburger declined to discuss how Clark rehabilitated himself. But he said Clark provided detailed testimony about how he would support himself and where he would go if released. Those are important considerations, Harburger said.

Harburger is a supporter of parole reform. The question of whether to bring it back is one of the biggest facing the Legislature this year. Dozens of people testified before the Legislature's Criminal Justice committee in March in favor of a bill that, while still a concept draft, looks to incorporate recommendations from a commission tasked with studying parole. Supporters argue parole gives people who are incarcerated the motivation to rehabilitate themselves and provides more hope for release than Maine's early release program.

But that bill faces an uphill battle. The committee narrowly voted to reject it in May. Its opponents included law enforcement, victims' rights groups, and Gov. Janet Mills, who worried how it would affect victims.

Melissa Martin, a legal director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the committee during a public hearing that a successful parole system would need protections and notification systems to keep victims safe. It also needs to address what services are available to people both in and out of the incarcerated system.

"None of that is in the current draft," she said. "...Without those pieces being there, there is a risk for further sexual harm."

Even though the bill appears ill-fated, Arthur Jones, with the Restorative Justice Project in Maine, said he believes it may still have a chance. Jones says he and other organizers are working on an amendment that would address victims rights groups' concerns.

"We'll continue this process, even if the bill fails, which we hope doesn't, because it's the right thing to do," he said. "People deserve a second chance."

Clark was expected to be released from the Maine State Prison on Friday.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.