Is Maine ready to help prisoners released early? Has it ever been?

Starting Nov. 1, 2015, it’s possible that as many as 200 Maine inmates convicted of drug-related crimes will become eligible over time for an earlier release, under a likely change in federal sentencing guidelines.

That means a greater number of federal prisoners could be returning to their homes, families and communities in a shorter period of time than previously anticipated.

It’s not clear yet whether states’ ability to process inmates and ready them for re-entry into the community will be overburdened. That will depend on who is eligible for early release and how much time they have left to serve on their sentence.

But the question raises a larger one: Have states such as Maine ever really been prepared to successfully transition inmates back into being productive, healthy members of society? Given that, in Maine, 56 percent of former prisoners are arrested within three years of release, according to the Muskie School of Public Service, many would say no.

OpArt by George Danby

OpArt by George Danby

On July 18, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to lower the mandatory minimum sentencing guideline ranges that apply to most federal drug trafficking offenders — and make the change retroactive. The commission is an independent federal agency that develops policy for federal courts regarding the length of people’s prison terms.

The decision would allow federal courts to begin considering requests for sentence reductions Nov. 1, 2014 — absent action by Congress to the contrary. Prisoners could begin to be released Nov. 1, 2015.

In the past, under similar but more limited initiatives, prisoners were released immediately — without re-entry plans and services. In this case, the gap year is designed to allow inmates the time to transition as they normally would through halfway houses and to allow judges time to consider the influx of requests for reduced sentences.

In total, 46,290 offenders in the U.S. — nearly half of all inmates in federal prison for drug crimes — would be eligible to have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine whether their sentences could be reduced without threatening public safety. Eligible offenders could see their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months, or 19 percent, according to the commission.

Commission chairwoman Chief Judge Patti Saris explained why the sentencing guideline levels should be lowered: “Federal prisons are 32 percent over capacity and 52 percent over capacity for the highest security facilities. Federal prison spending exceeds $6 billion a year, making up more than a quarter of the budget of the entire Department of Justice and reducing the resources available for federal prosecutors and law enforcement, aid to state and local law enforcement, crime victim services, and crime prevention programs — all of which promote public safety.”

Indeed, since 1980, the number of federal inmates has increased 800 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. population increased 28 percent over the same period. What was the largest portion of new inmates jailed for? Drug crimes.

Drug arrest trends in Maine From 1986 to 2010, the number of drug-related arrests in Maine increased 238.4 percent. Over the past 10 years, arrests for drug offenses have increased 18 percent, while arrests for all non‐drug offenses have decreased 7 percent. SOURCE: Muskie School of Public Service

From 1986 to 2010, the number of drug-related arrests in Maine increased 238.4 percent. Over the past 10 years, arrests for drug offenses have increased 18 percent, while arrests for all non‐drug offenses have decreased 7 percent. SOURCE: Muskie School of Public Service

While many people are clear on the need to reduce prison populations, they are less clear on the near-term impact of releasing more inmates.

For instance, will there be a burden placed on halfway houses, which supervise federal inmates as they near their release and offer employment counseling, financial management help and assistance re-integrating into their community?

Ron Gastia is program director of the Northern Maine Regional Reentry Center in Bangor, which is run by Volunteers of America Northern New England under a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The reentry center — or halfway house — opened last year and is one of two in Maine that supervises federal inmates and helps ready them for life after prison.

If Congress doesn’t block the sentencing commission’s guidelines, the federal government and local communities will have to gauge and prepare for the increase in inmates being released.

“In order to limit the potential negative impact this could have on communities and certainly on the system itself, they may need to look at opening additional reentry centers,” Gastia said.

The Bangor facility is contracted to hold up to 12 inmates, but the facility is large enough to hold 28 to 30.

With more inmates at reentry centers and returning to their communities, there would also be a need to ramp up treatment options, especially since most prisoners in question have backgrounds of drug use, Gastia said.

“If the treatment isn’t available, then you’re setting them up for failure. If you’re going to put more people into reentry centers, to be successful reintegrating into the community you have to make sure the tools are there for them to succeed.”

A spokesman at the Bureau of Prisons would not say how the federal agency would deal with a greater number of inmates leaving federal custody, only that it would work with the Department of Justice to facilitate their release.

Peggy McGarry, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, said it’s important to remember that not all inmates will be eligible for early release immediately or at the same time.

States will need to examine how many inmates will be affected and where their original homes are, so they can ensure local service providers know what to expect — and former inmates know who to reach out to.

Each case will be different, McGarry said. Some former inmates will be able to return to a fairly stable life and get treatment through private means. Others will need more help accessing health care, housing, counseling, substance abuse treatment and employment.

There is much more federal and state governments can do to ready people returning to life after incarceration, she said.

Do they know how to apply for a job? Are they working to increase their educational attainment? Have community members come to them to ask how they can meet their mental health and drug treatment needs? Are employers open to hiring them?

And how well do laws allow people to even seek work? According to the American Bar Association’s Collateral Consequences project, Maine has a total of 1,838 legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions against people convicted of federal and state crimes. Some serve to legitimately protect public safety — such as to restrict who domestic violence offenders can contact. Others apply to those convicted of any crime, regardless of how long ago it happened.

Inmates have “been held in utter deprivation, and now we expect them to adjust to the world and know how to use a computer and sign up for Medicaid if they’re eligible, sign up for a mental health counselor,” McGarry said. “It makes no sense.”

“What do we have to do to make sure this person does better when they get out, not worse?”

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Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.