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Shining Light on Humanity

2021 Guide to Criminal Justice Reform

by | May 31, 2021

“Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy … Free them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4)

Five years from now, I will have served a complete “life sentence.” From the time of my incarceration, I will have lived my entire life over again, encased in a concrete tomb of the societally dead for as many years as I previously spent growing up in the “free” world. I have passed most of the past 13 years in observation and reflection, looking at myself and at the system that ensnared me at 18.

My conclusion: both needed drastic change.

With the help of God, my best friend and mentor E, and an ever-expanding network of loving and supportive people, I am a radically different person than I was at 18. Now I need your help to enact some substantive change in the system that perpetuates harm in the lives of millions of people. Together, we can start with Maine and the thousands of families right here.

I need you to help me reach people’s hearts so they will want to change their minds about the need for criminal-justice reform. I’ll provide examples, based on my observations, of areas in the system that need to change, and bills being considered by Maine’s Legislature this month to address those injustices. Let’s work together to shift this system from one that inflicts pain through retribution and punishment to one that encourages rehabilitation, transformation and reconciliation.

You can find your state legislators’ contact info at legislature.maine.gov by searching using the name of your town. If we don’t pass these bills during this legislative session, it’ll be two years before we get another chance. You don’t have to be an expert to weigh in and make a difference: even a simple e-mail or quick phone call expressing support for a bill will make a big impression on state lawmakers, who rarely hear from their constituents on these issues. Multiply those impressions by dozens or hundreds and we will achieve real, positive change this year.

Inside Maine State Prison, our ability to have our voices heard on these issues is quite limited. Please follow the lesson provided by King Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV): “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute … defend the rights of the poor and needy.” We need your voice. I need your voice.

Suffering youth lash out 

Far too many people become entangled in the prison system before they reach adulthood for lack of a simple thing: opportunity. Opportunity doesn’t always mean privilege. It doesn’t even have to mean a handout. Many opportunities come through one person performing one act of kindness at just the right time in a desperate person’s life. This act of kindness, support or encouragement in turn provides the missing element we all need in this life: hope. To know that one person sees in me something more than a throwaway means I might amount to more in this world than another cursed birth.

History (and the current levels of incarcerated youth) shows us that opportunity and hope are severely lacking in the lives of our youth. With no apparent escape from abusive homes, children run away, shoplift or steal. With no vocabulary to articulate their suffering, they often embrace aggression and rebel against the well-meaning teacher, police officer, relative or case manager trying to help. Eventually, whether via foster care or juvenile detention, these children enter the System.

There are two complementary bills that directly address the need to keep our young people out of jail and in a supportive community.

LD 546: An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Maine Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force seeks to reestablish the juvenile-justice task force to “divert youths from detention and commitment [and] reduce the rates of detention and commitment” through establishing “2 to 4 small, secure, therapeutic residences for [up to 20] youths for the purposes of providing detention and confinement.” By employing a therapeutic approach in a small, supportive group setting, this bill addresses the cause of a child’s unlawful actions, enabling them to stay out of the System in the future.

LD 1668: Resolve, To Develop a Plan To Close the Long Creek Youth Development Center and Redirect Funding to Community Integration Services for Adjudicated Youth also seeks to keep children in a community, instead of warehousing them in a distant prison. While the juvenile-justice task force works to establish those therapeutic residences, this bill directs the state to develop a plan to close Long Creek [see “Up Long Creek Without a Paddle,” Sept. 2019].

Under LD 1668, funds previously earmarked for Long Creek would be used for “community-based integration services for youth [such as] supportive housing, jobs programs, educational programs and health care, including mental health and substance use disorder treatment.”

 

Vagrancy laws are still on the books 

The perpetual criminalization of homelessness and poverty is a lasting legacy of vagrancy laws enacted in far less enlightened times. People become homeless for many different reasons: divorce, abuse, mental illness, substance-use disorder, accidents and injuries. Laws against loitering, public drinking, urination and disorderly conduct punish people for being homeless and exacerbate the problems and stresses that keep them on the street. [See Kenneth W. Beek’s “Transience” for a first-hand account of this vicious cycle.]

LD 1478: An Act To Decriminalize Homelessness “requires the Attorney General to adopt a homelessness crisis protocol to be adopted by law enforcement agencies.” This protocol ensures mental-health and substance-use-disorder professionals are made available to respond during encounters between police and people struggling with homelessness. Minor violations like those mentioned above will no longer lead to incarceration, but to help addressing the root causes of a person’s homelessness.

The professionals will provide “appropriate information and referrals to resources in the community, including … crisis services, emergency and transitional housing and case management services.” In many cases, of equal or greater importance will be the compassion these professionals embody and express, providing those on society’s margins with a tangible sense of belonging to a community that cares about their well-being and is invested in their success.

LD 1703: An Act To Amend the Bail Code seeks to end the personal and familial upheavals caused when a poor person cannot post bail. Rather than completely disregard the needs and responsibilities of people accused of a crime, as is the current practice, this bill would require judges to take into consideration 1.) if a person is a primary caregiver; 2.) if they have a physical or mental-health need that would be better met outside of custody; and 3.) if incarceration would prevent them from keeping their job. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, and the bill provides special protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Victims stay safe and poor people are no longer victimized.

 

Judges aren’t perfect 

We are taught that Justice is blind and judges are wise and impartial, but the truth isn’t nearly so neat. Lady Justice peeks under her blindfold to give preference to the privileged, and judges are flawed human beings just like the rest of us — they have feelings, they watch the news, and they carry their own mental baggage around. Prosecutors are incentivized to maintain high conviction rates, and public defenders are stretched too thin and paid too little to care too deeply about each of their clients.

As a result, convictions and sentences are as much personal or political statements as they are about “justice.” Defense attorneys and prosecutors commonly agree to plea deals shaped by considerations that have little or nothing to do with the best interests of victims, society or the accused, and judges usually rubber-stamp whatever deal the lawyers strike. I was once awed and intimidated by the big courtroom, the black robe, all the stern white faces. Now I know better.

Protections need to be put in place to prevent and redress unjust sentences. Examples abound of gross sentencing disparities in Maine. Most go unnoticed and unrectified. People give up hope and suffer the injustice in silence. Others, like me, begin the process of pursuing a post-conviction review of our sentences, only to discover that, if successful, we would be re-sentenced by the same judge who sentenced us the first time. No, thank you!

LD 1273: An Act To Establish Conviction Integrity Units in Maine would authorize “the Attorney General and every district attorney to maintain a conviction integrity unit to review convictions in cases they prosecuted to determine whether there is plausible evidence of innocence, a constitutional violation or prosecutorial misconduct, or when the facts and circumstances require a review in the interests of fairness and justice.” It would also prohibit prosecutors, justices and judges from reviewing cases in which they were initially involved. Fresh eyes would have an opportunity to dispassionately assess decisions made under all sorts of pressures at the time.

LD 1270: An Act To Establish Resentencing Units in the Attorney General’s Office and All Maine Prosecutorial Districts would require the A.G. and D.A.’s to “maintain a resentencing unit to review ongoing sentences of cases they prosecuted to determine whether the sentences should be reduced or terminated in the interests of fairness or justice.”

photo/Joseph Jackson

COs are people too  

Corrections Officers (COs) should be paid well. They work in environments where violence is a very real possibility (even though it’s often no more serious than a schoolyard fist fight) and subject themselves to the possibility of becoming institutionalized right along with the people they oversee. To these stresses are added the need to meet the ideals espoused by the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC): Integrity, Honesty, Respect, Dependability, Trust.

Sadly, most COs cannot meet or maintain those standards. There are some truly decent people who work in Corrections, and I’ve known several who truly embody the DOC’s ideals, but these are the exceptions. More common is apathy, disconnection and abuse of power. Prisoners are also expected to meet the DOC’s ideals, but staff can act contrary to those values and then issue a disciplinary report when a prisoner objects and verbally reacts.

There have been staff members hired at correctional facilities after losing their previous corrections job for misconduct. Their bad behavior persists in a new environment, creating new victims, but nothing is done because their union protects them.

I know the DOC and prison administrators say they’re trying to meet their ideals, and that staffing shortages are a very real problem. Regardless, we need people of integrity and compassion to work in this field. We need partners on the inside to realize positive change.

While I believe there should be an increase in pay for all Corrections staff, I also believe it should be merit-based. The union should be dissolved, as it has a strong tendency to protect the most abusive and corrupt staff, while leaving decent workers blowing in the wind. Sadly, there is no legislation to address either of those issues this year. What is available to us is:

LD 1683: Resolve, To Compensate Department of Corrections Employees for Hazardous Work would require the DOC to use federal funding to pay eligible employees a “hazard duty stipend” for their work during the pandemic (retroactive to when the previous hazard stipend ended and continuing until the state of emergency is officially over). The prison staff who showed up day after day — some wearing bandages on the bridges of their noses from the N95 mask abrasions — deserve to be compensated for making it possible for us to not have to be locked in our cells 24/7.

LD 573: An Act Concerning Records of the Employment of Law Enforcement Officers and Corrections Officers would require that all employment records, including those pertaining to internal investigations, be released to a law-enforcement agency or facility when a current or former cop or CO applies for a job there, ending the ability of bad cops or COs to cycle through departments.

 

Probation: trap or support? 

While there are some probation officers (POs) who realize their job is to support formerly incarcerated people, far too many still consider their highest duty the re-incarceration of those who (even allegedly) commit a minor violation. I know of a young man finishing a 30-day stay in county jail as I write this. He was released from Maine State Prison in April of last year and spent the past year fighting to maintain his freedom and continue his personal growth. He received no support from his PO and had to reach all the way back into prison for guidance on how to obtain housing and seek employment as a felon.

Then his journey was interrupted by a false accusation from his girlfriend’s mother. That accusation got him kicked out of the program his probation required him to attend. Probation violation = 30 days in jail. His girlfriend’s mother subsequently admitted her accusation was unfounded, but the violation stood. The young man’s lawyer informed him that the burden of proof is so low for a violation that POs don’t even need to prove that one occurred. This is just one of innumerable similar stories I could tell.

LD 844: An Act To Examine and Amend the Conditions of Release and Probation would require “the examination of the reasons individuals undertake actions that lead to incarceration and recidivism due to a violation of conditions of release or probation, and propose changes, based on the findings of that examination, to reduce incarceration and recidivism due to such a violation.” This bill has the potential to significantly lower the recidivism rate just by identifying the frivolous technical violations that send people back to jail and prison every day.

LD 858: An Act To Expand Recovery Services to Persons on Probation would change the terms of probation such that if “a person on probation is subject to conditions requiring the person to refrain from drug use and excessive use of alcohol, and the probation officer has cause to suspect a violation of those conditions, but not a violation of law that constitutes a crime, the bill prohibits arrest and revocation of probation for the violation of probation conditions [and] authorizes the probation officer to impose additional conditions in lieu of probation revocation.” In other words, POs can focus on providing options that further the person’s recovery and avoid disruptive incarceration caused by addiction.

We need a way home 

With a national recidivism rate of 70 percent within five years, it is abundantly clear that the established mechanisms of rehabilitation, reentry and reintegration into society are not working. As I explained in a column last September (“Does Society Allow Redemption?”), the commutation/clemency process is a sadistic joke that teases the uninitiated into believing that once a person is truly rehabilitated, they have a chance to return home and become a productive member of society. And as just noted, probation keeps more people trapped in the System than it supports to a successful exit.

I have only served 13 years of the 50-year sentence imposed on me by Justice Nancy Mills. At my sentencing hearing, she said she wished she could have sent me to prison for more than half a century, but was restricted by the cap set by the prosecution (this is the judge who would re-sentence me if I went through that process). According to her, I will be a violent criminal incapable of rehabilitation for at least another 27 years (assuming I receive all my “good time”). Until then, I am of no use to society. A throwaway.

Justice Mills’ sister-in-law, Governor Janet Mills, apparently agrees. Maine has no parole system. In her opposition to reestablishing parole, delivered by her legal counsel, Gov. Mills says, “the judge who sits through a trial and hears all the evidence is in the best position to decide the appropriate sentence.”

This provides no possibility or consideration for rehabilitation and personal transformation — the stated goals of the System itself. The only people who can say I’m the same damaged child who caused grave harm to an innocent family are people who do not know me. How many others have made the transformation I have and are desperate for an opportunity to show their family, their community and, when appropriate, their victims that they have grown and changed for the better?

People die without hope. Even when physically existing, a person devoid of hope is just waiting to die. If you open the prison doors to a hopeless person, they will remain entangled in the System until it finally strips them of their last breath. Give that person hope, a little support and encouragement, and all manner of good outcomes become possible.

LD 1593: An Act to Provide Pathways to Rehabilitation, Reentry and Reintegration would expand the Supervised Community Confinement Program (SCCP) from 18 to 24 months. “The primary determining factor for approval shall be the prisoner’s likelihood of completion [of the program]…”

This bill would require the DOC to inform key community stakeholders “of the prisoner’s fulfillment of expectations as to conduct, fulfillment of expectations as to work, education, and rehabilitation programs assigned in the case plan, and other rehabilitative efforts and accomplishments.” It would also ensure that prisoners are informed about SCCP and its process, giving them hope that achieving home-confinement status is possible, and track all relevant data, so the program’s success can be measured and adjustments made as necessary.

LD 842: An Act To Reestablish Parole would establish “the option of parole for persons sentenced to the custody of the Department of Corrections.” It incorporates the concepts of “positive reentry” parole and uses evidence-based risk-assessment criteria to determine eligibility. The law would also develop revocation guidelines based on similar criteria. Those of us serving 25 years to life would be time-eligible after 20 years, and those sentenced to less than 25 years would have to serve half of their sentence before becoming eligible.

 

A different kind of justice 

Many people have now heard about restorative justice, but most have never heard the phrase retributive justice. That’s the kind of justice we have now, one based on retribution: “You caused harm in your community, so we, the criminal-justice system, are going to hold you accountable and punish you as we see fit.”

The people actually harmed by crime lose their voice soon after they choose to press charges. They have no say in the courtroom other than a possible opportunity to testify at trial (a stage very few cases even reach) or provide a “victim impact statement” at sentencing. After sentencing, the victims, just like the harm-doer, are forgotten.

Restorative justice gives all parties affected by crime — victims, perpetrators and their communities — a voice and a role in the process. Victims can express how the perpetrator’s actions affected them, and community members can do the same. The perpetrator thus learns the full impact of their wrongdoing. He or she is then encouraged to take accountability for their actions, answer the questions of the affected parties, and is given the opportunity to participate in the process of making right the wrong that was done. This can include community service, reimbursement, performing work for the victim, and even a period of incarceration. A community agreement is created that spells out how the perpetrator will make amends, and what steps will be taken if the agreement is violated.

This shift in our idea of justice is necessary if we are ever going to experience healing in our communities. The first step is passing:

LD 1226: Resolve, Directing the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations To Examine Restorative Justice, which directs that commission “to conduct a review of proposed and passed national restorative justice legislation and make recommendations in the areas of education, juvenile justice, adult diversion and correctional settings for advancing restorative justice legislation in this State.”

 

Leo Hylton is a hospice volunteer, mentor, peer facilitator, K-9 Corrections dog handler, Master’s student, and Executive Secretary of the NAACP in Maine State Prison, Warren. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or leoshininglight@gmail.com.

 

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