More drug offenders could be released from prison, and why it should spur wider changes

Posted Sept. 01, 2014, at 12:32 p.m.

Maine and the nation will have about a year to figure out how best to prepare for a potential increase in drug trafficking offenders being released from federal prison.

Federal and local agencies should not just ask what they can do to accommodate the increase and ensure inmates get basic transitional services. Rather, they should use the opportunity to seriously examine how to better reintegrate all inmates back into society.

Unless Congress blocks it before Nov. 1, a new rule from the U.S. Sentencing Commission will lower the mandatory minimum sentencing guideline ranges that apply to most federal drug trafficking offenders — allowing inmates to petition for earlier release from prison. It’s part of an attempt to bring greater fairness to a sentencing system that has too harshly punished drug offenders.

After Nov. 1, judges may consider granting earlier release to as many as 46,290 offenders nationwide — and about 200 in Maine. They would not start being released until after Nov. 1, 2015.

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The gap year is supposed to allow inmates the time to transition as they normally would through halfway houses, otherwise called re-entry centers, and to allow judges time to consider the influx of requests for reduced sentences. But is that enough?

The Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice would have to determine whether to increase the number of re-entry centers, which supervise federal inmates and help ready them for life after prison. And access to job training, education and social services would have to be ramped up.

But these are just the basic changes that would be needed to keep up with demand. Why not pair preparations with even greater reforms encouraging inmate reintegration and rehabilitation — or look at how to, over time, reduce the number of inmates in Maine jails for nonviolent crimes?

The state’s approach toward reintegrating inmates isn’t working.

Recidivism rates across the country have remained above 40 percent for the last 20 years. In Maine, nearly six in 10 offenders return to jail within three years of release. The costs to the state and nation are enormous. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world; in 2012, states spent $53.5 billion. In Maine, the Department of Corrections’ 2010-11 budget was about $143 million.

Preparing inmates for re-entry must start as soon as they enter prison or jail. As much as possible their time should be focused on training, education and treatment, based on their plans for life after incarceration. Inmates must be treated as humanely as possible, to increase the likelihood of successful reintegration.

The overall goal of incarceration should not be to break people. The vast majority of inmates will one day be released. People might think preparing inmates for work and community life will defeat the punishing aspect of prison; but simply being in prison is punishment enough. If prisons don’t address the problems that led to offenders’ arrest in the first place, there will be more victims, more taxpayer costs and more heartache. Instead of readying inmates for a return to life behind bars, the focus must be on rehabilitation.


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