Like most inmates in Maine State Prison, convicted murderer Jeffrey LaGasse will one day be released.

He sees two very different realities awaiting him and prisoners like him on the other side of the prison walls.

If he serves the remaining approximately 20 years of his 30-year sentence, he could be released with no monitoring, supervision, or restrictions and few job prospects in the community as a newly released felon. Or, under a proposal LaGasse is championing from behind bars, he could be released from prison before his sentence is up, enabling him to live in the community under monitoring by a probation officer. He and others would be required to check in with authorities, agree to random drug and alcohol testing, and be given time and support to get re-established in the community and find a job and stable housing.

Which outcome would Mainers prefer for the state’s inmates? LaGasse and prison reform advocates want that question to be decided at the ballot box.

LaGasse, convicted of murdering Louise Brochu in 2007 in New Portland in what he describes as a burglary gone wrong, is working with other prisoners and their supporters on the outside on a petition that is expected to be released for circulation by the Maine Department of the Secretary of State this week. It seeks to place a referendum question on the 2018 state ballot asking voters to agree to create a new “positive re-entry program” for Maine inmates to help re-integrate them back into society.

LaGasse, 36, said now there is essentially no established, effective re-entry program for Maine prisoners. So when some inmates complete their sentences, they are released from prison to fend for themselves in a society they haven’t been part of in some cases for decades and without positive connections in the community, he said.

Some prisoners who wouldn’t otherwise ever be able to leave prison would be eligible to participate under the program’s proposed language. Prisoners serving life sentences would be eligible and could get out of prison and into the community if they meet the program requirements and agree to be monitored in some form after serving as few as 20 years.

That possibility is drawing alarm from victims’ advocates who say the proposed language goes too far.

Arthur Jette, Maine chapter leader of Parents of Murdered Children, whose 21-month-old grandson, Treven Cunningham, was murdered in Dexter in 1999, said he thinks any proposal to let prisoners serving life sentences out of prison is incomprehensible. He said life sentences are reserved for people who’ve committed the most heinous crimes, who took the lives of one or more people. He said both the Maine chapter and national organization oppose anyone with a life sentence being given an opportunity to be released from prison.

“It’s incomprehensible why we would want to take the risk of putting those individuals back into society,” he said. “They’ve already killed once. They’ve shown a propensity to kill. The No. 1 priority of the state, of government in general, is to provide safety for its citizens. And I can’t see anything that would undermine that effort more than considering the release of people who’ve killed and want a chance to be free and maybe kill again.”

PROGRAM DETAILS

Inmates who meet program requirements who were sentenced to between one and 25 years could be released after serving at least half their sentence. Inmates serving a sentence of 25 years to life could be released after serving 20 years.

Those inmates would be released into society but still required to serve out the remainder of the term in the program. LaGasse said inmates would be eligible for the program if they maintain good behavior while in prison and show they’re taking steps to improve themselves such as by taking classes or participating in drug or alcohol abuse prevention programs. The program would require them to be monitored by and check in with authorities, likely probation officers, and they would have to comply with conditions of their release including curfews and no use of drugs or alcohol.

Such inmates would live in either halfway houses or similar facilities, or in independent housing such as their own home with other residents of the home vetted by the Department of Corrections. Rules violations, if serious, would get the inmate put back into prison. LaGasse said conditions could include requiring inmates released to their own homes to only be able to leave for work or approved appointments and to wear ankle bracelets that would track their movements.

The proposed referendum would establish a parole-board-like committee of citizens with a variety of relevant expertise who would determine whether inmates qualify and whether they would be a risk to society if they were released.

LaGasse argues most inmates will be getting out of prison someday anyway, so Maine residents would be better off if those inmates are released to a monitored re-entry program that would reduce the chances they’ll re-offend and end up back in prison.

“I believe the citizens of Maine would like to know individuals are getting programs to be properly reintegrated and be properly supervised when they’re released, rather than getting out with $50 or nothing in their pocket and a bus ticket to nowhere to go crash on someone’s couch,” LaGasse said in a recent interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren. “It would cut back on recidivism, it would cut back on so many people being incarcerated, and it would save taxpayers a substantial amount of money.”

Volunteers with the Maine chapter of CURE, or Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a nonprofit organization which advocates for prison reform, plan to circulate the petition to put the proposal to create the positive re-entry program before Maine voters.

Neda Washer, president of the organization, said inmates are human beings who’ve made bad choices in life. She said now, with only limited programs meant to help them prepare to return to society, prisoners are being set up to fail, because they aren’t being provided the education and skills they need to go back into the community and succeed.

The positive re-entry program, she said, would allow prisoners who prove they are committed to improving themselves and not re-offending to be released from prison while still being monitored by authorities. They would live in a halfway house or in home confinement for the remainder of their sentences. And if they violate any of the rules, they’d be placed back in prison.

“A lot of people think if you’re in prison, that’s where you belong and you will never change,” she said. “But people can change. Most of these people are going to be out in the community at some point. And we want them to be out there with the support they need to be successful.”

Washer said she’s motivated, in part, by her love for an inmate she met while he was already incarcerated at Maine State Prison, Santanu “Sam” Basu, a 48-year-old convicted murderer sentenced in 2004 to 62 years in prison. If the positive re-entry program is created, he could be eligible to be released from prison after he serves at least 20 years of his sentence and then serve out the remainder of his term supervised in the community if he meets its requirements. Without any changes, he’d be in prison until his late 80s.

‘NOT FULLY PREPARED’

Basu is one of four Maine State Prison inmates working on the proposal with LaGasse. The others are Dana A. Craney, 53, who is serving a 60-year sentence for murder; Doug A. Dyer, 43, who is serving a 40-year term for murder; and Gary L. Sweeney, 58, who is serving a 40-year term for murder.

Cathi Gonzalez, coordinator of Maine CURE’s efforts to petition for the positive re-entry program, said inmates lose touch with society while they are incarcerated, don’t have connections to find jobs and often don’t have positive role models they can turn to.

She said the re-entry program would provide them access to services such as counseling, to help finding employment and to mental health treatment.

She said her now-ex-husband was incarcerated, and when he got out of prison a few years ago, he didn’t have a job, couldn’t find any support groups for help and, as a felon, had a hard time getting an apartment. They were divorced within six months of his release, and now she fears he could be on his way back to prison.

“Most often when these inmates are being released into society, they’re not fully prepared,” she said. “Some don’t have anywhere to go. They’ve lost touch with all the support they had, and they return back to the same lifestyle they left, which is usually not good. With this program we can offer some guidance and a slow re-entry, so they’re better prepared to be law-abiding citizens. It’s not a get out of jail free card. It’s, ‘Do you want to make better choices and become a better person?'”

Jette said he thinks redemption should be reserved for criminals who commit nonviolent crimes. He said it is easy for inmates to appear to have changed themselves for the better and even be considered to be model citizens, because prison is a structured and controlled environment. In prison, most of their decisions are made for them, so they need only comply with the rules. He also said everybody finds God when they’re in jail.

Jette said many families of victims are already upset that inmates can get out before their sentences are up for “good time” by behaving themselves while they are incarcerated. They surely don’t want to see inmates get out even earlier through a re-entry program.

“We don’t see any justification for early release, and we’re not supportive of any so-called positive re-entry programs,” Jette said. “It sounds like a very serious injustice, at the end of it all, to have someone take a life or multiple lives and serve just 25 years and then be able to enjoy 25 wonderful years having a family life with somebody they love after they’ve denied the same thing for somebody else for their own selfish reasons.”

TAKING A LIFE

LaGasse said he takes responsibility for killing Brochu. He said he didn’t intend to kill her, describing the incident as a burglary gone bad.

Brochu’s family members, during LaGasse’s trial, described her as a hardworking, funny, friendly woman, and a great mom to her daughter, Emily.

Her body was found June 8, 2007, under a pile of roofing metal in the mill yard at New Portland Wood Flooring, her business on Route 27 next to her home.

LaGasse, who had previously done some work for Brochu, lived nearby and reported her missing.

He initially pleaded not guilty, but later changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in state prison under an agreement between his attorneys and prosecutors.

LaGasse said he is ashamed and sorry for both what he did and who he was back then.

“I want everybody to know how sorry I am for what I did,” he said. “I know sorry can never be good enough. You can never give back something you’ve taken from somebody. I’m the one who did that. It wasn’t alcohol or drugs. It was me. I’m so ashamed of myself for that.”

After he was convicted, he was given a chance by the judge to speak to the court or the Brochu family. He said nothing.

LaGasse said he regrets not apologizing to the family in court and said his lawyer told him not to do so.

He said he recently received permission from the Department of Corrections to write an apology letter to the family, which he plans to do soon.

“I wanted to say I was sorry (in court). I regret that,” LaGasse said. “I want to help them in any way I can with the grieving and healing process. They deserve to know that, to know I’m sorry.”

Brochu family members could not be reached for comment.

LaGasse said back then he was egotistical, stubborn and selfish, drank alcohol every day, and took Adderall, a stimulant, to keep going when he was drinking.

From 1998 to 2004, LaGasse was in prison for other crimes, on arson and burglary charges. He said if a program like the positive re-entry program had existed then, it might have prevented him from returning to his old ways by giving him the tools and positive influences to make better decisions.

He says he has changed in prison now, taking substance abuse classes, parenting classes so he can be a better parent to his four now-grown children, classes in psychology, finances, anger management and others meant to make him a better person.

He thinks the proposed positive re-entry program could help others change by giving them incentive to better themselves and decrease the chances they’ll commit another crime and return to prison.

“This is my way of giving back, working on this program, to prevent others from ending up coming back here, and so individuals don’t have to go through what I’ve put other people through,” he said in an interview room at Maine State Prison. “Because I walk around here all day and see things that were in a young me in the other people here. By giving people an opportunity to be in this program, I believe it will help them see the mistakes they’ve made so they can change.”

He said he hopes crime victims and their families would take some solace in knowing that the perpetrator of that crime, when they get out of prison, would be reintegrated properly in the program, so they would be less likely to re-offend or commit new crimes.

PREVENTING NEW CRIME?

Both proponents and opponents of creating a positive re-entry program for Maine prisoners say recidivism datum supports their stance.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which studied recidivism in prisoners in 30 states from 2005 to 2010, 68 percent of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years.

Jette said that datum illustrates that inmates are highly likely to commit another crime when they are released, so they should not be released early.

Washer and Gonzalez said the re-entry program would decrease the odds an inmate will commit another crime by giving inmates a better, supported re-entry into society.

While datum on recidivism is prevalent, datum on whether re-entry or parole programs reduce recidivism is sparse and inconsistent.

A 2006 Urban Institute report, “Does Parole Supervision Work?” found 62 percent of inmates released with no conditions were re-arrested within two years, compared with 54 percent of inmates released before their sentences were complete whose releases were screened by a parole board and supervised.

A 2013 analysis of New Jersey datum commissioned by The PEW Charitable Trusts found that inmates released to parole supervision were less likely to be rearrested, reconvicted and re-incarcerated for new crimes than inmates who serve their full terms and are released without supervision. But the two groups returned to prison at almost identical rates as parolees were sent back to prison for technical violations such as failing drug tests or missing meetings. In that study, 25 percent of parolees returned to prison within three years, compared to 39 percent of inmates who completed their terms and were released unsupervised. However, when technical violations are included, 38 percent of parolees were returned to prison.

Another PEW commissioned study, a 2014 report done after the Kentucky Legislature passed a measure to create a mandatory re-entry supervision policy that required every inmate to undergo post-release supervision, showed new offense rates reduced by 30 percent, 872 more prison beds available per year, and $29 million in savings in the 27 months after the policy was implemented. Inmates released into mandatory re-entry supervision were 30 percent less likely to return to prison for a new crime within one year of release.

FAILED ATTEMPTS

To successfully make it onto the ballot, the petition drive must secure at least 61,123 valid signatures — 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the Nov. 4, 2014, elections.

Maine Department of Corrections officials declined to be interviewed for this story or provide information about what exists for re-entry programs in Maine now, beyond stating the department does have Correction Care and Treatment workers who do re-entry work with offenders.

Jody Breton, deputy commissioner, said Maine CURE’s positive re-entry proposal is similar to previously rejected legislation that would have created a new parole system.

Maine hasn’t had parole since 1979, when it became the first state in the country to get rid of parole and replace it with determinate sentences, in which the judge sets a specific prison term.

In 2013, “An Act to Establish Positive Re-entry Parole,” sponsored by Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, didn’t move forward after the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted “ought not to pass” on the proposal.

While testifying against that proposal for the Department of Corrections, Breton said the department objected to parole due to the indeterminate nature of the sentence, the uncertainty created for both victims and offenders, and the possibility of re-victimization of crime victims by the need to appear before the parole board, according to written testimony.

LaGasse said that proposal was flawed in part because it wouldn’t have required inmates to show they’d made efforts to improve themselves to be eligible for release from prison. He said proponents also didn’t do enough to educate the public about it and its potential benefits. He said the new proposal would more properly reintegrate prisoners back into the community.

He said it would cost less than re-establishing parole, too, because it wouldn’t be overseen by a full-time parole board. Instead, a committee of citizens would be established, and members would be paid only when they were meeting, not full time. The committee would review inmates’ eligibility for the program, including reviewing their likelihood of re-offending. The committee as proposed would include a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, a licensed mental health professional, a case manager who works with health and human services agencies, a physician and the director of security for the Department of Corrections, all appointed by the governor.

Washer and LaGasse said the program would save the state a substantial amount of money, because prisoners, once released from prison to be monitored in the community, would pay the halfway house or other facility to reimburse their housing and other costs once they get a job. They said the only cost of the program to the state would be stipends paid to members of the citizen committee when they meet to consider inmate applications to enter the program.

The average annual cost to house an inmate in Maine, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, “The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration costs taxpayers,” based on 2010 datum, was $46,400 a year. LaGasse said it would cost much less than half that for inmates in the program.

Incarceration costs can grow as inmates age and their need for medical care increases, Washer said. If they’re housed outside of prison in an assisted living facility, the federal government may help pay the cost of their healthcare, rather than that cost falling on the state Department of Corrections if the inmate remains in prison.

OTHER SIDE OF TRAGEDY

LaGasse said he understands what it’s like to have someone taken from your life suddenly, the way he took Brochu away from her family. The mother of LaGasse’s 21-year-old son, Dominic Sargent, was killed in a triple murder in 2014 just three days after she and LaGasse spoke, he said for the first time, about their son.

Christina Sargent, 36, and her two other children, 10-year-old Duwayne Coke and 8-year-old Destiny Sargent, were killed in their Garland home in December 2014. His son Dominic, LaGasse said, found the three bodies Dec. 20, 2014, in the mobile home his mother and her two other children shared with Keith Coleman. Coleman, 28, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder and one count of gross sexual assault and is awaiting trial. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 1, according to a Penobscot County court clerk. Coleman is being held at Maine State Prison, where LaGasse is also an inmate.

LaGasse said he has a lot of anger toward Coleman for what he allegedly did. But he said if the two come across each other in prison, he would not seek retribution.

LaGasse expressed doubt that Coleman, if he is found guilty, would qualify for the positive re-entry program because of the severity of his alleged crimes. But he said if he did, he would be OK with Coleman participating and being released from prison early to serve out part of his sentence in the community.

“I’d want this program to work for everybody, and you know what, as long as (Coleman) is doing the right thing, to better himself, absolutely,” LaGasse said. “He’s going to pay the price by having to be here before he can figure it out. He may not. I look at what I’ve done and the person I’ve become now. But not everybody can change.”