AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage is suggesting that prison inmates granted “conditional commutations” could help fill vacancies in Maine’s tourism industry as businesses struggle to find workers with summer looming.

But LePage acknowledged the number of commutations is likely small, and it is unclear whether some in the customer-centric tourism industry would embrace hiring newly released ex-convicts.

During two radio interviews this week, LePage discussed his administration’s new initiative to offer low-risk offenders “conditional commutations” as long as they “actively pursue and maintain approved employment” or job training. At the same time, LePage talked about the worker shortage facing restaurants, hotels and other businesses central to a tourism industry that drew an estimated 36 million visitors to Maine last year.

“That’s the whole premise for commuting sentences is to try to find people that we can put into the labor force,” LePage told the The Breakfast Club radio show program on Maine’s Big Z 105.5 on Tuesday. “I thought, initially, when I started this we could contribute a couple of hundred. It doesn’t look like we are going to get there. But yeah, finding labor is a real issue right now in the Maine tourist industry.”

On the same day, LePage told WVOM-FM about the commutations and discussed a letter he was sending to the Trump administration asking for more foreign worker visas to help address the worker shortage. Many businesses in high-traffic tourist towns such as Bar Harbor and Old Orchard Beach rely on foreign workers using the H-2B temporary, non-agricultural visa program.

“So we are looking at every corner of the state to put people back to work,” LePage said on WVOM. “That’s what the commutation program is all about.”

Listen to Gov. LePage’s full interview:

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Innkeepers Association and Maine Restaurant Association, gave LePage credit for looking at different options to address the worker shortage.

“I would applaud the governor for thinking outside of the box,” Hewins said.

The number of prisoners released is a drop in the bucket compared to the need of the hospitality industry, he said. But over the longer-term, the hospitality industry would like to see the state train inmates inside prison and jail to prepare them for jobs in the hospitality sector after release, Hewins said.

“Just opening the doors to non-violent offenders who aren’t trained is more people, but it is not going to be an immediate cure,” Hewins said.

The owners of several businesses in the hospitality industry declined to comment on the prospect of hiring recently released inmates.

So far, 17 inmates have been granted conditional commutations, with the vast majority of the roughly 100 potential cases ultimately being rejected due to the nature of their offenses or a history of violating parole. LePage said he is now expanding the search for potential commutations to county jails and to facilities housing women.

Maine’s tourism industry employs about 106,000 people, roughly one out of six jobs in the state.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett declined to elaborate Wednesday on the governor’s comments or any connection between the conditional commutations and his efforts to help the tourism industry. Although LePage has downplayed any connection, the commutations happened during the same week his administration moved to close the minimum-security Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. The aging facility appears to have been granted a temporary lifeline with a LePage administration budget amendment to continue funding the prison through March 2018.

But one advocate for a different approach to inmate rehabilitation and re-entry said he was encouraged, if somewhat surprised, by LePage’s conditional commutations.

“It’s a good initiative and I hope it continues because there are too many people in Maine prisons for non-violent offenses,” said Jay Davis, chairman of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast.

The Restorative Justice Project currently helps inmates primarily from Waldo, Knox and Hancock counties transition from jail to society through the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast. The six- to nine-month-long program offers participants access to mentors, counselors, tutors, community service opportunities and limited work experiences. Program participants have gone on to work as cooks in restaurants or in other hospitality fields. Davis added that those who go through the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center program receive plenty of help preparing for the transition.

“Commuting somebody’s sentence and saying, ‘OK, go find a job’ is not the same thing as having someone go through a mentoring program and counseling program … and all of the other things offered by the reentry center,” Davis said. “If the commutations were done in coordination with programs like the Restorative Justice Reentry Center, there would be a greater chance of success.”

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