Maine must cut prison costs, but not this way

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Mention prisons and you will quickly hear someone say, “lock ’em up, throw away the key and let them eat gruel.”

The reality, however, is that prison sentences do end. When they do, men and women often return to their former homes and communities.

That means prison may be the only chance we have to turn a criminal into a contributing member of society.

Sure, it doesn’t always work; many prison inmates do re-offend. But the goal is making that recidivism rate as low as possible.

Maine does have a serious prison problem — cost.

“Reinventing Maine Government,” a report issued this fall by GrowSmart Maine, found that our prison costs are much higher than other states.

Our annual expenditure per inmate is $93,500, while the national average is $46,400 — a huge difference, according to the report.

In a state facing an $800,000 budget shortfall, that represents a real opportunity to save money.

While on the campaign trail, governor-elect Paul LePage promised to help bring a private prison to Milo.

Town officials have been working with the Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison operator in the U.S., to locate a prison in an industrial park there.

CCA is looking for a place to build a prison for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshal’s Service. The facility would support about 300 badly needed jobs.

But it would also require a change in state law to allow a for-profit prison in Maine.

This could come as a narrow change that would allow only federal prisoners to be housed in the new facility, and that would be fine.

However, Baldacci administration officials have said the CCA deal comes with strings attached. The firm would require the state to send some Maine prisoners to its out-of-state prisons.

The cost-cutting opportunity is obvious on the surface — Maine could reduce its prison expenses simply by shipping offenders to low-cost CCA sites.

But it’s the long-term consequences that worry us.

Many inmates still have families who visit them during their prison stays and provide a valuable support network for their post-release transition.

An out-of-state move would make it much harder to maintain those visits and eventual support.

Second, while Maine does have criminals, few are of the hardened variety found in many more urban states.

Prison can be a place where people learn better life skills. It can also be where they learn new criminal skills that make them even more of a menace when they get out.

That seems more likely to occur in CCA prisons in other areas.

As a result, Maine should remain reluctant to house Maine inmates outside its borders.

Even so, LePage should appoint a team to uncover why our prison costs are so high and what can be done to safely reduce them.

The ultimate goal, however, must not be simply warehousing people as cheaply as possible.

The long-range savings is found in returning people to the streets with better social and occupational skills.

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