Awareness is dawning around the country that 30 years of lengthy, tough-on-crime prison sentences have constructed an unsustainably expensive penal system.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed eliminating parole for low-risk ex-prisoners and shortening sentences for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs. He hopes to save close to $1 billion next year.

New Hampshire Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn, also wrestling with soaring prison costs, says some inmates should be in alternative programs instead of in prison. Penalties need to be reviewed, he has told legislators.

Two years ago Maine’s legislators created a Sentencing and Corrections Practices Coordinating Council to study, in part, how to reform sentencing laws.

But rethinking sentencing has not yet reached the governor’s office. At a January 9 press conference, John Baldacci revealed his approach to rising correctional costs: resurrecting his proposal to send prisoners to a cheap, out-of-state corporate prison; slashing rehabilitation programs; and packing more inmates into cells.

What about a California-like alternative of reducing the number of people on probation and parole, the governor was asked.

“I have a hard time with that,” Baldacci replied. “I really do. But I’m willing to listen to the discussion.”

Baldacci, a Democrat, also wants the Legislature to cut 64 Corrections employees, close housing units at several prisons, reduce the number of probation officers, eliminate prisoner advocates, and cut help given to women prisoners.

In 2007 Baldacci wanted to ship 125 Maine inmates to a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) lockup in Oklahoma, ostensibly because of prison overcrowding. The Maine Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and other critics said corporate prisons’ inferior conditions and the inevitable reduction of family visits make rehabilitation difficult. The Legislature killed the proposal.

This time, in making the administration’s pitch for the corporate-prison alternative, Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson is talking about saving money. It costs $103 a day to keep a prisoner in a Maine prison, he says, but only $66 to $70 in a corporate facility. Shipping 118 inmates away would save around $1.5 million a year, if his figures are correct.

Despite the alleged savings, key legislators in the Democratic majority once again are giving a cold shoulder to shipping prisoners out of state. Portland’s Anne Haskell, the House chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee, has said she’s opposed. And Brunswick’s Stan Gerzofsky, Senate chairman, says, negatively, “I’ve heard all this before.”

Magnusson says he’s once again considering CCA as the possible destination for Maine prisoners. CCA indirectly contributed cash to Baldacci’s last campaign, and his fundraiser, cousin, and close political advisor Jim Mitchell is CCA’s lobbyist in Augusta. To date, CCA has paid his firm $22,500, according to lobbyist disclosure records. Mitchell has admitted he has talked with the governor about CCA, but he insists there’s no connection between his political and lobbying work.

“The governor and Mitchell have spoken about the budget, but any decision about where prisoners might be sent would be made by the Department of Corrections,” the governor's office says.

  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Criminal Sentencing and Punishment,  More more >
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