It’s a great time for forward thinking and innovation in the Maine Department of Corrections. With the prison system facing drastic budget cuts, increasing recidivism, and with the national spotlight on the American correctional system, prisons in Maine must take center stage.

Maine’s criminal justice system is not required to track prisoners to ensure they receive meaningful release consideration. Once someone is in prison, it is the responsibility of the state Corrections Department to detain and care for the prisoner: Unless instructed otherwise by an appropriate authority, the department will do so until the prisoner dies or is released.

The popular misconceptions about people in prison are that everyone in prison is bad or incorrigible, and that all prisoners are the same. For every 100 inmates, at least one is legitimately ready to re-enter society. For every 2,000 inmates, 20,000 people — family members, relatives and friends — are affected by their absence. That is about 10 people per inmate.

As someone who has spent the past 29 years in the prison system, I can tell you that most people who enter the prison system are salvageable and fairly good prospects for rehabilitation. As one seasoned caseworker told me many years ago, “Only 10 percent of inmates are considered to be heartless thugs — the rest just made a serious mistake in their lives.”

A lot could be gained from countries more advanced and mature than our relatively young one. In Western Europe, for example, there is much more openness to the possibility of transformation of those incarcerated. Crime rates and the rates of incarceration for all crimes are lower. There is a much broader understanding of human psychology as it relates to everyday practical life.

It seems impractical, uneconomical and counterproductive to invest a fortune in keeping someone in prison their entire life, rather than ultimately release him/her and get a return to the taxpayer. When any further incarceration serves only to outline the seriousness of the offense and no longer condemns it, then action should be taken to assess and determine as to whether that person can function as a value-driven asset in the community.

The public’s expectation should be that of correcting an offender rather than leaving that person in prison for their entire imposed sentence. As one prosecutor has made clear: “Sentencing is not a science.”

A reduction in recidivism without funding programs that open up the opportunity for an inmate to create alternatives to a criminal lifestyle is unrealistic. The revolution to change the prison culture also must come into play and become a priority in the correctional bureaucracy.

Recidivism not only creates new victims, but also is a huge burden on taxpayers. Achieving a reduction in recidivism must start upon entry into the system.

Systemwide, a permanent part of the program structure should be to create an individualized re-entry plan that addresses education, employment (including resume preparation, job seeking and interviewing), health (including physical health, mental health and substance abuse challenges), managing family conflict and mentoring as well as develops pro-social behavior and desistence from crime.

No one is more dangerous than a criminal who has no incentive to straighten themselves out while in prison and who returns to society without a transition plan. The public stands to not only save millions of dollars by drastically reducing recidivism, but also to have a safer community with each case of successful re-entry.

Prison officials must lead such a transformation and if recidivism is going to become the prime focus, prison officials must take an active role in reintegration and embrace it as policy that invigorates prisoners with a sense of continued life outside the system.

The get-tough-on-crime ideology may be politically popular, but in the real world, it has not worked. In order to take the right path, we must choose the right values and adopt the right perspective. After all, the goal should be that once a person has demonstrated significant change over a substantial period of time, he or she should receive prime consideration for release back into the community.

Jeffrey Libby is an inmate and a certified literacy tutor at the Maine State Prison in Warren. He is serving a 60-year sentence after being found guilty of murder for the July 8, 1986, death of his grandfather in Winslow.

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