Story-telling: How to pass (or defeat) a bill

Legislative Logic
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 27, 2013

Social scientists have found that if you want to convince people of something, don't be too wedded to sober statistics and iron-clad logic. People respond best to a vivid story. In this regard, humans haven't advanced much beyond the hunter-gatherer tribe around the campfire.

That includes legislators. Keeping this in mind, let's guess at the outcome of two criminal-justice bills recently presented to Maine's Legislature.

LD 873, AN ACT TO ESTABLISH POSITIVE REENTRY PAROLE

Parole is a prisoner's conditional, supervised release into the community. This bill would allow rehabilitated inmates, after half their sentence had been served, to apply for parole to the Maine State Parole Board. Its sponsor, Democratic Senator John Tuttle, told the Criminal Justice Committee, "I believe that people are capable of changing."

Maine's parole board still exists for five older prisoners, even though parole ended in 1976 for new offenders. As society began its tough-on-crime binge, the end of parole in a number of states and for all federal crimes has contributed to the United States breaking world imprisonment records.

LD 873's supporters include Greg Kesich, the Portland Press Herald editorial page editor, who recently opined: "Here's an idea that could save the state $100 million." He suggested parole would eliminate the need for the new prison that Governor Paul LePage has requested.

At the February 22 hearing, both Senator Tuttle and Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) said that warehousing rehabilitated prisoners didn't make sense logically or financially: it costs over $50,000 a year to keep someone in prison in Maine, and just the possibility of parole would encourage rehabilitation.

The bill's numerous opponents, however, were more interested in punishment than rehabilitation. For the most part, they were victims of violent crime or those who spoke for them.

They had vivid, emotional stories to tell. One rape victim gave the committee a gruesome account of the rape, of the shame and humiliation she endured being examined at the hospital, and of the terror she felt for years afterwards.

If you break the law, she said, you should just get "shelter, food, water, only necessities." Her daughter wrote the committee, "There is no place in society for a monster" like her mother's rapist.

It was also argued that people who commit violent crimes should be kept locked up as long as possible because victims will be afraid when perpetrators are let out. The group Parents of Murdered Children gave the committee a list of anecdotes about parolees who had committed vicious crimes.

On that subject, a news story doubtless was on the legislators' minds. The morning of the hearing, the national news media proclaimed at full volume that the likely murderer of Colorado corrections director Tom Clements was a parolee (killed in a shoot-out with Texas police). He has since been named the suspect in the killing.

Veteran committee member Gary Plummer, a Republican senator, said the bill "probably" wouldn't go anywhere.

LD 352, AN ACT TO PROHIBIT PRISONERS FROM FILING PROTECTION FROM HARASSMENT COMPLAINTS AGAINST PERSONNEL

The Judiciary Committee heard this bill on March 21. It would deny inmates the right to ask a court to stop various kinds of harassment, including violence and intimidation, by guards or other prison staff. The Department of Corrections, which submitted the bill, claimed that handling these complaints was a burden on it and other state agencies.

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