The state is examining ways to ease prison overcrowding.

AUGUSTA – State lawmakers were faced with a tough situation: Mainers do not want to spend millions of dollars to build a new prison but they also do not want criminals on the street.

That made coming up with solutions to Maine’s overcrowded prisons and overburdened probation system a difficult task.

In the end, however, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee was able to come up with a plan.

The bipartisan committee has drafted a bill, LD 1903, that it hopes will bring relief to the probation system by 2006 and to the prisons by 2008.

The bill includes recommendations made by two commissions formed by the Legislature last year.

One commission was asked to come up with solutions to ease overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails. The other was asked to review Maine’s sex offender laws to make sure they were tough enough.

After both commissions submitted their reports, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee decided to review the recommendations together and combine them into one bill.

This made more sense since one commission was calling for more prison and probation time and the other was calling for less, said Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland.

The final bill is 54 pages long and it calls for many changes.

It would make sex crimes against young children more serious while reducing prison and probation sentences for low-risk defendants. It also calls for an increase in the use of sentencing alternatives, such as county work crews, and for more programs to treat sex offenders while they are incarcerated.

The final bill is the result of many compromises.

One of the recommended changes would give inmates an opportunity to earn an extra two days a month of good time by completing education and training programs.

Democrats on the committee wanted to extend that opportunity to all inmates. Rapists and murderers were excluded, at the request of some Republicans.

When reviewing the state’s treatment of sex offenders, some Republicans wanted to give judges the option of putting people convicted of raping children younger than 12 on probation for life. The committee compromised with a maximum of 18 years.

If approved by the Legislature, the bill would be the biggest change to the state’s criminal code in 20 years, Strimling said.

The bill is scheduled to go before the House of Representatives within the next week. Members of the Criminal Justice Committee expect a lively debate.

“We know full well that it is going to be a difficult sell,” said Rep. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland.

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