Wave of reform

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  February 6, 2008

The coalition’s aim is to secure better conditions for Maine’s inmates — and to reduce their numbers, which, as in the rest of our tough-on-crime nation, have been on the rise for many years, despite declining crime rates. Harshness and overcrowding have put a strain on prisoners, guards, and state and county budgets. Liberal human-rights activists and conservative budget-cutters, it turns out, share interests.

“I believe we have organized at a critical moment,” Lehman says.

Activists have already won the first battle — rather, the county governments won it for them.

Democratic Governor John Baldacci had proposed that the Corrections Department take over the jails, closing or downsizing five of them. Baldacci’s idea, designed to facilitate immediate cost-cutting, would have done little, in the view of reformers, to address the root causes of the rising prison and jail costs and would have increased prisoner suffering by separating inmates from families and communities. Such separation, the critics say, increases the likelihood of a prisoner’s return to crime (recidivism) once he or she is set free. Reformers also see Maine’s Corrections Department as dysfunctional and trapped in the counterproductive American penal philosophy.

County officials fought Baldacci using many of the reformers’ arguments, and they found public support.

Not quite a compromise
“Today we may have forged a new direction for corrections in the state of Maine,” said Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story in announcing the Corrections Board proposal to the Criminal Justice Committee in a crammed State House hearing room on January 28.

Story touted the scheme as a compromise between Baldacci’s plan and an alternative proposal, for the formation of something called the Maine Jail and Community Corrections Authority, which had been developed by the counties. But he looked relaxed and confident — as if the counties clearly had come out the winner. The Corrections Board looked a lot like the counties’ proposed corrections authority.

The counties also won a promise from Baldacci that he would back off from trying to close jails. The state board will decide the future of each jail in looking at the entire corrections system. And the counties won the state’s commitment to assume the counties’ jail-construction debt payments (about $10 million a year) and to freeze jail-associated property taxes.

A dozen Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition members showed up for the announcement. After officials presented their plan, the reformers testified. They urged legislators to seize this opportunity to profoundly restructure the system: reduce sentences, give proper treatment to Maine’s mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates, improve post-release programs to reduce recidivism, and require more use of alternatives to incarceration such as probation.

The next battle in the correctional war will be over the makeup of the Corrections Board. As the proposal now stands, two of its members will represent the governor and two the counties. Five more will represent the public, and have no formal allegiance to any official. These members could provide fresh, independent-of-the-bureaucracy thinking on how to deal with prisoners.

From inmates — in both state prisons and county jails — the Corrections Board is bound to hear many serious complaints. At the meeting in Belfast eight days earlier, activists had developed a long list of needed reforms, including an end to physical and sexual abuse by guards, better health care, less-expensive telephone charges when prisoners call family members, and the renewal of uncensored news-media access to prison inmates.

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