Criminal offenders don’t get much benefit from spending time behind bars, and neither does the community. This is the philosophy behind programs that allow Mainers convicted of nonviolent crimes to do their time outside of Maine’s jails. The latest such effort has just been launched in Somerset County, and although there are challenges to getting it off the ground, there are also advantages for both inmates and the community.

More than half of Maine’s county jails offer alternative sentencing programs, which allow inmates to work outside the jail during the day and receive substance abuse and mental health-related education in the evening. The programs’ focus reflects the fact that many of the participants have been convicted of operating under the influence (although some counties also allow participation by those with misdemeanor and other nonviolent convictions).

Starting a program isn’t easy, Teresa Brown, Somerset County community corrections program supervisor, recently told the Morning Sentinel. State corrections officials must approve the community service site in advance (the inmates Brown supervised painted walls at Madison Junior High School). The prospect of having inmates working in the community is daunting to some members of the public, too.

But the benefits of the program are also obvious. Taxpayers save the $90-a-day cost of housing inmates at the jail. Inmates give back to the community by doing work at public facilities. And the educational component of the program gives participants a chance to learn from experts and from one another.

Alternative sentencing isn’t an option for every nonviolent offender in Maine. That’s because the counties that offer these programs charge participants a fee to take part. Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said that the fact “the person is paying for their incarceration rather than having taxpayers pay for it” is part of “the beauty of this program.” But the fee also means that the programs aren’t going to reach all of the people who could benefit from them – and that some of those people might wind up in one of Maine’s notoriously overcrowded county jails.

That said, effective policymakers are those who don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Most of the people in our nation’s prisons and jails are there for nonviolent offenses, and Somerset County is wise to move ahead with an initiative that deals with these offenders in an innovative way — but the program should have room for everyone.

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