AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine’s Republican governor, who once joked about using the guillotine to execute drug dealers, announced a plan this week to release an unknown number of “lower-risk” prisoners from the state’s correctional facilities.
State prisoner advocates applauded Gov. Paul LePage’s idea, while some fellow Republicans questioned it. The governor said the move wasn’t related to a minimum-security prison’s impending closure, but on Thursday, a leading Republican lawmaker said he thinks LePage planned to put off the closure partly because of concern about releasing prisoners.
Maine is seeing a drug crisis that state and law enforcement officials say is fueling crime and a rise in drug overdose deaths.
LePage’s proposal is in sharp contrast to his history of tough talk on crime. He once joked about using the guillotine to execute drug dealers and denied that he encouraged vigilante justice with his call to “load up and get rid of the drug dealers.” He also suggested greater use of ankle bracelets for prisoners struggling with addiction and mental illness.
Some Republicans worry about the impact releasing some prisoners would have on local communities.
“If he lets them go into our communities down here, we’ll have to fight back however we can do it,” said Republican Jeffrey Davis, a selectman in the town of Machiasport, which relies on a local minimum-security prison for jobs and services.
Republican House Minority Leader Ken Fredette said that LePage planned to continue funding the prison following “concern” about commuted sentences, while LePage’s office didn’t immediately comment.
The Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House this week supported funding the prison for two more years.
Anti-mass incarceration groups nationwide have pushed for programs that move non-violent offenders out of jails and into local communities.
Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said he supported the decision to reduce Maine’s prisoner population. But, he said the Machiasport prison is one of the state’s few facilities that help transition prisoners back into society. He said released inmates will need help with everything from housing to medical care to getting IDs.
“We don’t do enough to transition prisoners from incarceration back to society,” he said.
It’s unknown when or how many inmates will be released, or from which prisons. The administration also has not disclosed how it will determine if someone is a “lower-risk” offender, nor has it said whether leaving the prison in place for now would impact commutations.
The local council of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the union representing correction officers and other prison staff, said it was exploring seeking an injunction to halt LePage’s plan to shutter the prison.
LePage’s office said the Department of Labor will help Maine State Prison system inmates find “pathways to employment.”
Any released offender would face conditions like refraining from criminal conduct and completing required substance abuse treatment.
Republican state Sen. Joyce Maker said LePage’s decision makes him appear “soft on crime.”
“Does he want to be known as letting out the most prisoners into the Maine community?” Maker asked.
LePage has the executive clemency power to issue pardons or commute sentences of offenders — a process Jackson said typically takes months. He said prisoners began the paperwork process on Tuesday.
R. Christopher Almy, the district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said that he and other district attorneys were asked for input on LePage’s plan, and that he respects the governor’s prerogative. But he said he hopes LePage “gives advance notice to crime victims or others affected by those crimes.”