Pubdate: Fri, 02 Apr 2004
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Author: Gregory D. Kesich, Portland Press Herald Writer
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


A bill that would ease prison overcrowding by giving inmates more time off 
for good behavior is a step closer to becoming law.

The Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved the 
measure by a unanimous vote late Wednesday, after a contentious series of 

Supporters say the bill would ease crowding in the state's prison and 
probation systems by allowing prisoners who take part in work, education 
and rehabilitation programs to reduce their time behind bars.

Critics argue that it would solve a budget problem by putting convicted 
criminals out on the street.

But for the 13 members of the committee, it is a necessary response to a 
serious problem.

"We know we're in a crisis right now, and we have to do something," said 
the committee's co-chairman Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland. "This allows 
us to be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time."

The committee's recommendations include:

Increasing the "good time" a prisoner can earn from five days per month to 
nine. The benefit would not be available to those convicted of murder, sex 
crimes or domestic violence.

Lowering the maximum probation sentences for most felonies, while 
increasing it for sex crimes.

Eliminating probation for most misdemeanor offenses, such as drug possession.

The bill would lengthen sentences for all sex crimes committed against 
children younger than 12. It also would give judges options besides jail 
and probation when sentencing people for such minor crimes as theft or 
criminal mischief.

The demand for the bill comes from what has been described as an overtaxed 
state corrections system. Gov. John Baldacci's proposed supplemental budget 
includes money to hire 40 new corrections officers and other staff members, 
and to open a new section of the Maine State Prison in Warren to address 
some of the needs.

But state officials say it will not be enough. Maine's state prisons have a 
capacity to house 1,800 inmates but now hold more than 2,000. That 
endangers inmates and staff members, Strimling said.

More troubling is the probation system, he said. Caseloads for probation 
officers far exceed recommended guidelines. Each Maine probation officer 
oversees more than 200 inmates, while the national average is 85.

Last year, a commission headed by former Corrections Commissioner Don 
Allen, which included Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and representatives of 
all aspects of the justice system, studied the problem and issued a report. 
Their work is the basis of the current bill.

Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle was also a member of the 
commission, but opposed its final report. He said the bill has some 
improvements over the commission's work, but he is still against it.

Fowle said the state would add pressure on law enforcement and the court 
system if it allowed convicted criminals to win early release.

"When you compare the cost (of new crimes) against the cost savings to the 
Department of Corrections, all of a sudden the cost savings don't seem that 
significant," he said.

He said the removal of probation for most misdemeanors would mean that he 
could not supervise people likely to commit new crimes, including those 
convicted of cruelty to animals or drug possession.

"Anybody who knows anything about crack cocaine knows those are the people 
you want to keep an eye on," he said.

The committee's ranking Republican member said she initially agreed with 
Fowle, but ended up supporting the bill.

Rep. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said that after voters rejected a bond 
issue to build new prisons, the only option left was to find other ways to 
reduce overcrowding.

"I think the solution is building more prisons and adding more guards," she 
said. "That would be my first choice."

But Snowe-Mello said she was convinced that the proposed law is targeted 
toward releasing lower-risk prisoners, while keeping closer tabs on the 
more dangerous ones. The proposed law would not reduce mandatory minimum 
sentences, or increase the good time regulations to the levels that existed 
before 1995.

Snowe-Mello said the state needs to act because current conditions expose 
Maine to class-action lawsuits making claims based on unsafe conditions.

The bill is being drafted, and will go first to the House of 
Representatives, possibly as early as next week. Even though it has the 
unanimous support of the committee, it is not expected to pass without 
significant debate.

"I'm opposed to weakening the laws, but we have to do something," 
Snowe-Mello said. "We have to provide safety for both the prisoners and the 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom