Here’s an idea that could save the state $100 million.

Instead of borrowing that much to rebuild and expand a state prison in Windham, as requested in the governor’s budget, we could make do with what we have. We might even be able to shut a prison down.

All we’d have to do is bring back parole.

The image of a prisoner going before a board of citizens to ask for an early release is such a common part of our culture that most Mainers, who have no contact with the criminal justice system, don’t even know we did away with it long ago.

In 1976, Maine became the first state in the country to get rid of parole and replace it with the law-and-order fad of the time, “determinate sentences,” where the judge sets a fixed length of time for the prison term at the time of the sentencing. Other states, including California, soon followed.

Now, many of these same states are wondering what Maine got them into.

The problem is that rather than letting prison officials and parole boards decide who belongs in prison and who is ready for another chance at life in society after they’ve done some time, the decision is left to a judge, who is expected to look into the future and make a guess about when an inmate might be ready for release before the cell door shuts.

The judge has to decide on sentencing day which aggravated-assault felon will be ready to get out in three years, and which one is going to need 10. It also assumes that the burglar poses less of a threat to society than someone convicted of manslaughter, when just the opposite may be true.

Determinate sentencing came into vogue at a time when rising crime rates and prison riots forged a rare left-right coalition. Conservatives liked the way judges meant what they said when they handed down a sentence. Liberals felt that the system would be less subject to racial discrimination than ones run by parole boards in some states.

So they remade the system and like polyester leisure suits and The Osmond Brothers, determinate sentencing is one of those ideas from the ’70s that hasn’t aged well.

Here in 2013, corrections is the third most expensive part of state government, after education and health and human services. Crime is declining, but the population behind bars gets bigger every year. It costs about $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone.

The state could pay a student’s tuition, room and board at the University of Maine for every inmate successfully reintegrated and still save money.

Bringing back parole is behind a bill submitted by state Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, who got the idea from a group of people in his district who practice a volunteer ministry in the prisons. They have convinced him that not enough is being done to prepare people for life in society.

“The current system doesn’t seem to be working,” Tuttle said Tuesday. “If we were to work with people and encourage them to have some kind of training, to have hope, it would be better than giving them $50 and a pat on the back and sending them out on the street.”

Tuttle’s bill would allow a prisoner to go before a parole board after serving half of his sentence. The board would determine if there was a “reasonable possibility that the person would live and remain at liberty without violating the law.”

Once paroled, the former inmate would still be in the custody of the prison system and could be subject to conditions such as a curfew or a prohibition against alcohol use. The parolee would have to have a job and a community sponsor who would help him keep on track.

If the parolee violates conditions, he could be sent to jail. If he commits a crime, he could be returned to prison for the rest of his sentence by the parole board — no trial necessary.

Tuttle introduced a similar bill that was defeated in 2011. That one was retroactive, creating potential constitutional problems because it changed existing sentences.

This bill would affect sentences only for convictions after Oct. 1, 2013.

People who want to talk tough on crime and say we should throw away the key on these offenders will find a bill like this to be easy prey.

But even they have to acknowledge that nearly every person who enters a prison under the current system walks out one day.

Don’t we want them motivated to earn their freedom and ready to do what it takes to stay free?

Before we build a new prison, maybe we should take a good look and decide if everyone behind bars really has to be there.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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