When Maine eliminated parole in 1976 – the first state to do so – it was with a view to improving confidence in the criminal justice system, assuring the public that a sentence was dependable and final.

Inmate rehabilitation programs can succeed if they have public support. Matthew Magnusson, warden of Maine State Prison, points to the Supervised Community Confinement Program, where the last 30 months of a sentence can be completed in the community. John Ewing/Staff Photographer, File

In the intervening four-plus decades, American thinking on sentencing has evolved and public support for criminal justice reform with an emphasis on rehabilitation has grown.

A state commission tasked with studying the reestablishment of parole in Maine will begin meeting this month and issue recommendations in December. This new commission has a tremendous opportunity to get it right; to provide a detailed and deeply researched proposal for a modern system of parole that can better our criminal justice system and serve as a model for other states.

The decision to study the subject exhibits the right kind of thinking; the reestablishment of parole can’t and shouldn’t happen overnight. Any system entertained by Maine will need to be intricate, bold and carefully arrived at.

Underfunded and underinterrogated systems of parole militate against almost all parties: the prisons, which end up reincarcerating parolees; the eligible inmates, who lose out in a loose arrangement that’s lacking in necessary structure and support, and the public, whose confidence in the concept is worn down by its repeated failure. It is also imperative that the committee take into consideration victims of violent crime, for whom the prospect of even a parole hearing can be destabilizing.

When we think about investing in parole, we think of rigorous oversight of parolees and onerous reporting requirements. Under such a framework, minor rule-breaking can land people back in prison, defeating the purpose. It seems the way in which the U.S. tends to invest needs to change. According to analysis by the Brookings Institute, heavy-handed supervision does little to help ex-prisoners break away from criminal activity.


In a round-up of five studies conducted across the U.S. between 2010 and 2017, the rate of recidivism did not increase as a result of “low-intensity” supervision. In fact, some studies suggested that the more regularly a parolee is required to attend meetings, be tested for drugs or come into contact with other aspects of the carceral system, the harder it is for them to move on from crime.

There’s a case for rerouting taxpayer dollars to health care, housing, education and other forms of support. And even rehabilitation programs with these emphases, however sophisticated, can’t succeed in isolation: The wider public has a role to play.

“We can parole all the people in the world,” Arthur Jones, a former professor of criminal justice who is one of 13 members of the new commission, told the Press Herald. “If they don’t have the help of the community, they’re going to be back in there in another three to four months.”

A number of relatively new initiatives are encouraging in this regard. Maine’s Supervised Community Confinement Program, where the last 30 months of a sentence can be completed in the community, has been working well, Matthew Magnusson, Maine State Prison warden, told WMTW this spring.

The experience of the Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, which received $750,000 in federal funding earlier this year, should also inform the state’s approach. The network comprises scores of individuals and groups offering meaningful practical support to ex-prisoners, down to financial coaching, provision of cellphones and offers of transportation.

Providing that it’s appropriately nuanced and adequately resourced, parole can change our criminal justice system for the better. We look forward to the recommendations of the commission.

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