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Commissioner: Female Prisoners in Maine Could be Next on Commutation List

Gov. Paul LePage took to the airwaves of WVOM Tuesday morning to defend his decision to release 17 nonviolent male prisoners deemed to be at low risk of re-offending.

LePage said he commuted their sentences as a way to help address the state’s growing labor shortage. It’s an unconventional approach that’s being applauded by prisoner advocates, and female prisoners could soon be next.

Speaking on WVOM Tuesday morning, LePage said 17 male prisoners were “let go” on Friday after careful consideration.

“And we’re being very, very cautious. We started out with 100 people. We looked at them very closely. Most of them didn’t meet the criteria,” he said.

Those criteria exclude anyone convicted of drug trafficking, domestic violence and sexual offenses. Someone who has repeatedly violated probation is also an unlikely candidate. But someone who is a nonviolent, low-risk offender is.

Normally, a prisoner would apply for commutation with the five-member State Board of Probation and Parole, which reviews the reasons for the request. Richard Harburger, a retired federal parole officer who is the board’s chair, said at those hearings the prisoner presents evidence and witnesses to make the case that he’s worthy of early release.

Harburger said in the past two years, he hasn’t seen more than a handful of commutation applications, and of those he says none have been approved. Final decision rests with the governor, who traditionally uses commutations sparingly.

“Obviously, the governor is not in a position to second guess what a judge, who knows all the facts, decided in that particular case. So, I would have to say that it’s very rare that commutation would occur,” he said.

But in the recent round of commutations, the governor bypassed the Board of Probation and Parole’s process, apparently motivated by the state’s pressing labor shortage.

“The tourist industry is struggling, can’t find enough workers. So we are looking at every corner of the state to try to put people back to work. That’s what the commutation program is all about,” LePage said on WVOM.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers’ Association, said he welcomes the governor’s approach.

“It’s like a lot of things — it’s part of a matrix of solutions, but yes, it could help,” he said.

Hewins said this year the hospitality industry has struggled with a cap on foreign temporary workers who normally fill those kinds of jobs. And with an aging workforce and a 3 percent unemployment rate, he said he’s worried the shortage of workers could hinder the state’s tourism industry’s growth.

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said the next phase of the governor’s program is to look at the female prisoner population.

“We’ll use the same steps that we did with the male population and narrow it down, and then we’ll send that list and the files over to the governor’s attorneys, and they will do their review,” he said. “And then I’m assuming that the governor, I and the attorneys will do one final review yet again.”

Like the previous 17, he said they’ll first be screened by the Department of Corrections for their risks and classifications with input from probation officers and from the institutions in which they’re being held. He estimates that about 20 women could be released early, something that’s never been done like this before in Maine.

“I give the governor credit. It’s a creative approach to a statewide problem and he has been talking with me about different options to address the labor shortage over the last couple years,” Fitzpatrick said.

He said the commutations are not tied in any way to the governor’s plan to close the Downeast Correctional Center in Washington County, where about 100 male inmates are housed. Seventeen early releases, he said, doesn’t come close to providing enough beds for them once that prison is closed.

This story was originally published on May 30, 2017 at 5:00 p.m. ET.