Legislators, AG visit state prison

Sep 16, 2019
Source: File photo

Warren — Four members of the Maine House and Attorney General Aaron Frey held what two local legislators say were groundbreaking talks at the Maine State Prison on the issues of criminal justice and prison reforms.

The Thursday, Sept. 12, meeting included independent Reps Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship and William Pluecker of Warren. The talks were spearheaded by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, in conjunction with her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Talbot Ross had asked Frey to hold the discussions inside the prison and he agreed, Evangelos said. The four legislators were Talbot Ross, Evangelos, Pluecker and Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who had previously served for 28 years as a civil rights attorney for the state of Maine in the Attorney General's Office.

The Maine State Prison's NAACP branch represented the residents of the prison.

In a news release, Pluecker commented that "the discussions were wide ranging and included post-conviction review reforms, positive reentry, earned good time, rehabilitation and recidivism. We all have a stake in making the system work. Ninety percent of prisoners in Maine are going to be released someday. The reforms we are discussing will assure a smooth transition back into society and result in lowering the recidivism rate."

Evangelos agreed, stating in the news release that Maine's current recidivism rate is around 70 percent. However, Evangelos said, two "residents of the prison, Mr. Hilton and Mr. Brown, presented findings that showed that inmates who earned an associate degree had a recidivism rate of just 10 percent, a bachelor's degree just 1 percent, and a master's degree had no recidivism.

"Good results also were prevalent for those who had attained good job skills in prison. Results were similar for incarcerated women, as well. The bottom line is, we don't want people returning to prison so the prison reforms are partially focusing on that issue, emphasizing educational and vocation opportunities inside the prison that will lead to productive citizens on the outside."

Discussion also centered around a bill Evangelos sponsored, LD-302, "An Act To Amend the Laws Governing Post-conviction Review." The bill is up for consideration this January by the Judiciary Committee.

Frey has convened a stakeholder's group in Augusta to make recommendations for possible reforms.

Evangelos stated that "Maine's system of post-conviction review is hampered by unreasonable time limitations on new evidence and subjective due diligence standards in relation to the performance of legal counsel. One innocent person in prison is too many and I'm determined that an innocent person be given the best and fairest opportunity to obtain an exoneration through the court system."

"Too often," Evangelos said, "state of Maine prosecutors have successfully used procedural motions to prevent the introduction of evidence that would clear someone. Quite frankly, it's disgraceful that we'd keep someone in prison when there is evidence out there to clear them. It should be incumbent on the state to seek justice," Evangelos said.

A discussion followed with the prisoners and the attorney general in reference to post-conviction reforms. The inmates present stated that the vast majority of prisoners were in prison because they were guilty and they work every day to improve themselves, getting ready for the day when they are released from prison. Discussion included compassion for the victims of crimes, many who have suffered greatly.

In a joint statement after the meeting, Pluecker and Evangelos praised Frey for his groundbreaking effort to listen to all sides.

"Prison reform is a no-brainer. It costs $45,000 per year to house a prisoner, so reducing recidivism not only makes society safer, it saves the state a lot of money in the long run." The two legislators plan to continue their work on prison and criminal justice reform and also thanked Talbot Ross for her steadfast leadership. Talbot Ross closed the meeting, thanking the attorney general and stating that "Today was an unprecedented effort and collaboration between Attorney General Frey, the incarcerated and our legislators. We plan on working hard in Augusta and at the prison to build on the progress we made today."

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