When I first came to Maine, legislators were making repeated attempts to re-establish a parole system for prison inmates. The theory behind parole is that those convicted of crimes are individuals; some have managed to learn, while incarcerated, skills and attitudes that allow them to become “useful citizens” again.

This theory fell out of favor in the 1970s, as rising crime rates prompted Congress and almost every state legislature to crack down on criminal offenders. Today’s “mass incarceration,” giving the United States the highest per capita rate in the world, began here.

It seemed unclear why Maine had abolished parole; I was told there was a “scandal” at the state parole board that prompted its termination.

There was no scandal; at the time, all criminal sentences were reviewable in 12 years, and the parole board was seen as too lenient, granting many first-time petitions.

Abolishing parole, ironically, became part of a progressive criminal code overhaul in John Martin’s first term as House speaker. Many offenses were eliminated, marijuana possession was reduced to a violation, and penalties were made consistent.

Parole fell victim to “determinate sentencing,” also known as “truth in sentencing.” When you read in the paper that a judge had sentenced an offender to 10 years, you knew that’s what he’d serve.

There are still modest “good time” credits for well-behaved inmates, but there is absolutely no chance for tomorrow’s “model citizen” to serve any less time than one absolutely uncorrected, and perhaps a menace to society.

The Legislature, a decade later, deepened the bias toward long terms when it doubled sentences for Class A crimes. Now it was judges who were too lenient, applying too much “discretion” in sentencing for what were, at least on paper, the same criminal acts.

Maine, with one of the nation’s lowest crime rates, nonetheless started locking up more people, with the state system heading toward 3,000 inmates before recent interest in criminal justice reform reduced overall numbers a bit.

Costs for the Department of Corrections – not including considerable county jail bills – rose rapidly, eclipsing state support of public universities and colleges, which languished.

Given renewed awareness of the costs – to individuals, families and society as a whole – of locking people up for decades, is it time to bring back parole?

On one hand, if we’re even going to have a “corrections system” it should recognize that some inmates have in fact been “corrected.” Yet there’s always intense resistance.

Maine was the first state to abolish discretionary parole. Others soon followed: California and Indiana in 1977, Illinois in 1978, New Mexico in 1979, and another dozen states, mostly in the 1990s, as attitudes toward crime continued to harden even as crime rates began dropping.

The 16 states that have abolished parole fit no apparent pattern, yielding almost even numbers of “red” and “blue” states. This reminds us that legislatures can take many routes in responding to perceived public demands, and that one state’s reform idea simply doesn’t have the votes elsewhere.

Still, Maine stands out among its neighbors for allowing no parole, making it unusually dependent on the last resort of gubernatorial pardons and commutations – which, unlike parole boards, have no rules. No other Northeastern state has followed Maine’s lead.

In other respects, Maine is already far more progressive in attitudes toward crime, not only in decriminalizing, then legalizing marijuana, and reducing penalties for heroin use, but in being one of just two states – Vermont is the other – that allows prisoners to vote.

All the earlier efforts to restore parole got nowhere. Typical of contemporary attitudes were numerous statements by Janet Mills, then district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford. In a 1993 op-ed, she called parole part of Maine’s “museum of mistakes,” and said, “Parole is the quick, simple and wrong solution to prison overcrowding.”

Is it still a mistake? Or could we create a new system that would draw on significant advances in “risk prediction” that now governs many decisions within the judicial and corrections systems, about who should receive prison sentences, and for how long?

As it happens, there’s still a parole board in Maine, because courts ruled that abolition couldn’t apply retroactively – to those sentenced before 1976. There are a mere handful of inmates still eligible, but it might be possible to retrofit and improve the existing board rather than create a new system from scratch – always an arduous undertaking.

If it’s true that to err is human, there should be some way, within the legal system, to acknowledge that at least some people can learn from their mistakes.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected] 

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