In the mid-1990s, when then-Gov. Angus King unveiled an ambitious prison-construction plan, the proposal had nothing to do with any "lock-'em-up" agenda. Maine had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, a tradition of moderation on law-and-order issues, and no intention of changing either one. The centerpiece of King's plan was a $65 million maximum-security prison, which opened in the town of Warren in February 2002. The new facility was built to replace a 178-year-old, red-brick monolith that, as local lore has it, was a model for the grim prison of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption.
Referring to the old prison, Angus King (who is no relation to the writer) says, "It was almost Dickensian, it was the oldest prison in the country and it was very expensive to run." By building the modern prison, the state expunged a stigma, and Maine officials expected the savings in operating expenses to more than offset the new facility's capital cost.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fiscal prudence: Maine's adult prison population, which had held steady and even dipped for three years in the mid-1990s, shot up. By the summer of 2003, Warren was full. "That was a total shock, because it is practically a state-of-the-art facility that was supposed to be good for 10 years," says Sen. Mary Cathcart, a Democrat who co-chairs the Maine legislature's Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs. All told, the number of inmates in Maine's prisons surged from an average of 1,667 in 2001 to 1,819 a year later, a 9 percent jump and the largest increase percentage-wise among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The trend has continued this year, with the number of inmates in the state's prisons approaching 2,000. And Maine lawmakers had to grit their teeth and increase the Corrections Department's budget 11.8 percent this year over last.
The shock of coping with an unexpectedly voracious prison budget at a time of fiscal austerity -- hard times forced the state to virtually freeze its overall budget at $2.5 billion this year -- has created an extraordinary sense of urgency among Maine's top elected officials and an unexpected opportunity for reform. The state's political establishment, never before greatly interested in these issues, is suddenly all ears for new ideas related to crime and punishment. "It's like we're in a place where something really creative could happen," says Suzanne Rudalevige, director of the Maine Council of Churches' restorative-justice program.
Foremost among the proposals that are receiving close attention, according to Rudalevige, are various alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. The interest, moreover, is clearly bipartisan. "I wonder if it is good policy to have so many people incarcerated, especially nonviolent prisoners," muses the Republican minority leader of the Maine Senate, Paul Davis, who is a retired state trooper. In September, current Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, named former corrections chief Don Allen, a Republican, to head a blue-ribbon commission to inquire into the causes of the state's prison crisis and recommend remedies -- and do it quickly. Baldacci called for a report within three months.
The reasons underlying Maine's prison overcrowding seem to be complex. "When I first went into it, I looked for a silver bullet," says Ethan Strimling, the Democratic chairman of the legislature's Committee on Criminal Justice and a member of the new commission. "But the more I look at it, the more I believe it's a combination of a lot of things."
One leading explanation has its roots far from Maine: President Clinton's tough-on-crime policy. In 1995, to qualify for funds under Clinton's prison construction program, the Maine legislature enacted so-called truth-in-sentencing legislation. The "truth" the federal government demanded was a state law requiring criminal offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence in prison. Maine's new law limited the early release of prisoners for good behavior. Strimling says that preliminary research shows the law had a dramatic effect. "The actual time that people are serving behind bars appears to have increased something like 50 percent," he says, "and that's one area where we have to take a look."
A second factor is probation. Laws passed in recent years impose long probationary periods after prison on those convicted of certain sex, drug and domestic-abuse offences. According to state Rep. Janet Mills, a Democrat and former district attorney, the longer probationary periods are translating into a rash of technical violations of probation. As a result, many probationers are returning to prison. "If a judge says you can't drink for two years," Mills quips, "well, it's Maine! Hello?"
A third possible explanation derives from the "build-it-and-they-will-come" principle. Rather than crowd county jails, this theory holds, Maine judges may have lengthened sentences so that offenders would end up in a place where there was space. Under Maine law, offenders sentenced to terms of nine months or longer go to state prison; those serving shorter terms are consigned to county jails.
What's more, unlike most county jails, the new prison at Warren has a full-time staff to treat inmates with mental problems. Judges may have sentenced those who could benefit from superior mental-health services accordingly.
Statistics released by the Corrections Department seem to buttress the theory. Last year there was a nearly 200 percent rise in the number of Maine prison inmates sentenced for terms between nine months and one year.
In the past, Maine has followed a moderate -- not a pioneering -- path in its criminal-justice policy. At budget-crunch time in Maine, as in many other states, the Corrections Department's argument for money to enhance security has almost always trumped proposals to experiment with community-based programs for offenders, says Craig McEwen, the dean of academic affairs and a sociology professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
A gubernatorial task force that McEwen co-chaired in the late 1990s sought the release of more Maine inmates on probation, the creation of community-based programs to supervise and treat them for such things as substance-abuse and mental-health problems, and a system of intermediate sanctions short of reincarceration to deal with technical violations of probation. But McEwen said the task-force recommendations were largely ignored. "We've reinforced prisons as the major alternative for offenders and not built adequately the other alternative, which is intermediate sanctions and community corrections," he says.
But now those alternatives are back on the table again. Sen. Cathcart suggests, for example, that Maine ought to consider restoring a program of intensive supervision of probationers, which was instituted in 1986 and abandoned in 1993. The program's aim was to keep offenders thought to pose little risk to the community -- people convicted of, say, habitual but minor drug offenses or of writing bad checks -- out of prison. They would be supervised by probation officers with caseloads averaging 12 or 13 inmates instead of the usual 200.
Even Maine Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson, another member of the blue-ribbon panel, says he's keeping an open mind about restoring such a program, though he is also hedging his bets. The original program was scuttled, he has warned, because it aroused the "animosity" of the regular probation officers. "The department cannot reinstitute the program with existing resources," the minutes of a recent commission meeting quote Magnusson as saying.
Maine still has an early-release program that allows low-risk offenders to return to the community six months before their sentences are up. It has rarely been used, though, because, Cathcart says, prisoners are reluctant to leave without jobs to go to and corrections officials are reluctant to release prisoners who may be a danger to the community. But an early-release program, maybe with a job-finding component, is now under scrutiny.
Any proposal to spend public money on a program perceived as benefiting criminals will be a tough sell, proponents of community-based corrections admit. "There's so much stigma attached to inmates," says Carol Carothers, executive director of the mental-health advocacy group NAMI Maine. "They are just seen as criminals, and they should do their time and they should be punished, and it's hard for people to feel, 'Wow, we should be making conditions better for them.'"
There is, however, a financial case to be made for treating mentally-ill offenders in programs outside of prison, and Carothers has been making it. "Jail is the wrong place for people with mental illness," she recently told the new commission, "and is the least effective way to spend monies on these individuals. This is a huge financial drain. They will often die in prison."
In ordinary times, says Angus King, good works to enhance the state's penal system have "no political constituency and no sex appeal." But Maine today faces no ordinary budget crunch, and the policies adopted by the state's newly attentive political leaders may well put it in the vanguard of prison reform.