- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage on Friday granted conditional commutation orders for 17 prisoners through a plan that he says will help offenders get jobs and won’t threaten public safety.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and state prisoner advocates applauded the Republican governor’s idea to release lower-risk inmates, but some fellow Republicans have called it soft on crime and part of an effort to close a long-embattled Washington County minimum-security prison.

“The state is really safe now, isn’t it?” said Republican Sen. Joyce Maker, who says the commutation process typically takes months.

LePage’s office said the 17 individuals must abide by conditions including curfews. The action became official after Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap was dispatched to the governor’s residence to affix Maine’s seal on the commutation orders.

LePage’s office didn’t provide details, including which inmates would be released. But James Durkin, legislative director for the union representing Maine corrections officers, said that the public should know such information.

“The citizens of Maine deserve to know the background of these criminals,” said Durkin, of Council 93 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, called LePage’s decision “a positive step toward ending Maine’s over-reliance on incarceration.” Her group notes that census figures show that Maine’s state prison population has increased nearly 300 percent since 1980, while the overall state population has grown 18 percent.

“In Maine, like the rest of the nation, we lock up too many people for too long, at too great a human and fiscal cost,” she said.

She added, “in order for this effort to be truly successful though, we will need a thoughtful plan to ensure formerly incarcerated people can successfully transition back to society.”

That means more job training and education, she said, as well as “finding employers who are willing to hire people once they are released.”

LePage’s administration is backing off a plan to close down a Washington County minimum-security prison in June - a move that followed concerns from lawmakers about timing, the economic impact and a lack of open beds for inmates. The governor is instead proposing to fund the prison through early next year and have lawmakers study the issue until then.

The governor had denied that the prison closure announced last week had anything to do with his office’s announcement this week that he would consider commuting the sentences of “lower-risk” prisoners.

His office said that released offenders must abide by a litany of conditions such as refraining from criminal conduct, searching for and maintaining a job, a curfew and if required, substance abuse treatment.

His office also said that protocol requiring notification of crime victims would be followed.

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