Maine, like other states, holds far too many people in its prisons and jails. This disrupts people’s lives, unnecessarily costs taxpayers and depletes Maine’s already limited workforce.
So it is encouraging that Gov. Paul LePage sees the value of transitioning low-risk offenders out of prison and into the workforce. It is concerning, however, that this new approach doesn’t appear well planned and instead comes amid the governor’s hurry to close the Downeast Correctional Facility to save money.
The Department of Corrections announced unexpectedly last week that the Washington County correctional facility was closing in June despite ongoing debate in the Legislature about its funding and fate. The prison in Machiasport has periodically been on the chopping block for decades. After the Senate voted 30-3 Wednesday to maintain its funding for two years and the House followed suit Thursday, the governor apparently plans to keep the facility open.
There was disagreement over whether the LePage administration can unilaterally close the facility since the Legislature appropriates funds for its operations. The Attorney General’s Office says the administration cannot.
With the hasty announcement of its closure, there was immediate concern about the fate of the roughly 100 prisoners housed there. Associate Corrections Commissioner Jody Breton said they would be transferred to other state facilities. Lawmakers were immediately concerned some prisoners would be released.
Those concerns were heightened Tuesday when the governor issued a press release announcing “conditional commutations” of some low-risk offenders throughout the state prison system so they could enter the state’s workforce. The press release does not mention the Downeast facility or the need to lower the state’s prison population. It details strict conditions for release but doesn’t explain what supports will be put in place to ensure former prisoners transition to the workforce. If former prisoners violate their conditions for release, they are currently sentenced to additional time in the state’s county jails, so the governor’s plan has the potential to worsen the overcrowding problems at these facilities.
The state constitution gives the governor broad powers to reduce or end prison sentences, and state law sets out a process for this work. The LePage administration is not following the process in this case.
The relevant statutes envision a prisoner petitioning the governor to commute his sentence. The governor then notifies the attorney general and the relevant district attorney well before a hearing on the commutation request is scheduled. The hearing must be announced in a local newspaper. The sentencing judge and prosecuting attorney can be asked to provide statements.
It is unclear if the governor’s office plans to follow any of these steps or whether the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency will be part of the process. The confusion surrounding whether the governor plans to follow the law undermines confidence that the administration is really modernizing and improving the state prison system, as the governor’s press release promised. Instead, it appears as if the transition-to-work rationale for low-risk offenders was invented to cover up the lack of planning preceding the hasty announcement about the closing of the Washington County prison.
This is backward. The administration should be committed to releasing low-risk offenders and transitioning them to work. Before heading down this road, however, it must have a serious plan for evaluating which prisoners qualify for early release — something the governor’s announcement didn’t outline — as well as a plan to ensure adequate, community-based supports to help prisoners be successful in this transition.