PORTLAND (AP) – The state may give less or even no jail time for offenses such as breaking into a car or stealing property worth less than $3,000.

That’s the recommendation of the state Commission to Improve the Sentencing, Supervision, Management and Incarceration of Prisoners. The panel is trying to reduce the number of people sent to jail and the frequency with which convicts commit new crimes.

Maine’s prison population is growing faster than any other state. Maine now spends $63 million to house its 2,000 adult offenders, exceeding the state’s prison capacity. It is expected to grow to 2,195 by this summer. That doesn’t include numbers for county jails, which have limited room.

The commission wants to create a new form of accountability called “community restitution” for low-risk offenders. It would include offenders paying restitution to victims, performing community service or completing treatment or education programs.

“The pressure on the system is immense,” said Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

The increase threatens the safety of corrections officers and other inmates, commission members said. Magnusson said an additional $2.4 million is needed to open 112 new prison beds to handle the overflow, though such a plan faces a tough sell before the Legislature.

Fewer people are being sentenced to prison, but commission members say the problem is that a third of the people in prison today are there for violating conditions of probation and longer sentencing guidelines.

The state needs to change the way it holds criminals accountable, commissioners said.

Neale Duffett, a defense attorney and member of the commission, said one of the most severe problems facing the state is the sharp increase in the number of people placed on probation, the length of probation and the frequency with which probationers are jailed for violating their conditions.

“Back when I started this process I thought the problem was the 2,000 people in prison. It’s the 9,200 people on probation,” Duffett said. “We’ve killed the system by sending so many people to it.”

In addition to the intermediate sentencing, the commission recommends the creation of Community Corrections Boards, administered by county sheriffs, to coordinate alternatives to jail such as house arrest, work release programs or day reporting.

The recommendations call for hiring a group of professionals familiar with available services like counseling, job placement, housing and parenting classes to reduced repeat crimes, commissioners said.

The commission would also like to reduce some sentences for crimes where there is no personal injury and a one-year moratorium on increasing sentences or the severity of crimes to assess how sentencing affects the prison population.

The commission plans to make more recommendations at its Dec. 17 meeting.

AP-ES-12-04-03 0827EST



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