The State of Maine v. Parole

Maine was the first state to eliminate the possibility of parole. Now, a hard-nosed state legislator and a once-incarcerated PhD student are making the case that parole deserves a second chance. Can they sway a political establishment wary of looking soft on crime?

By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Tristan Spinski
From our June 2022 issue

One evening in June 2008, 21-year-old Brandon Brown came out of his second-floor apartment in the Old Port and walked downstairs to the Cactus Club. He sat at the bar with a friend, ordered a beer, and commenced, unaware, his last few hours of freedom for many years. It was a quiet night, a Tuesday. Brown had just gotten home from a shift at a rental-car agency and smoked a joint. He had no inkling of the headline-grabbing act of violence he was about to commit or of the personal transformation it would lead to.

The latter began in earnest a year and a half later at the Maine State Prison, in Warren, following his trial and sentencing. Sitting in a reception cell on his first day at the maximum-security facility, he silently resolved to make his time count for something. In the months and years that followed, he availed himself of opportunities to volunteer and to work: providing hospice care in the infirmary, making kids’ toys in the woodshop, serving as president of the prison’s NAACP chapter, training rescue and service dogs. What Brown became most invested in, though, was his education.

A new program at the prison allowed inmates to take courses through the University of Maine at Augusta. By 2018, Brown had associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts. Nobody had ever earned a postgraduate degree from behind bars in Maine, but Brown, feeling he had exhausted other avenues for growth, pressed for the chance. He won permission from warden Randall Liberty (now commissioner of the state corrections department), applied to a master’s program in peace studies and conflict resolution at Virginia’s George Mason University, and got accepted.

Brown was permitted 11 hours of computer access a week, eight of which he spent Zooming into classes, leaving three for researching, typing papers, and emailing professors (American college students average 10 hours per day in front of a screen). He made an unusual request to move to a more restrictive unit where inmates are confined to their cells from 5:45 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. He settled into a monkish routine, poring over books and monographs and scribbling notes from the time he was locked in into the small hours of the morning. In a very specific way, he was thriving. “The most painful thing I have to admit,” he says, “is that coming to prison saved my life. If I hadn’t been found guilty, I think my life probably would have continued in the direction it was going. And the reason that really sucks is because, in a messed-up way, it still requires that harm to have occurred.”

In 2010, Brandon Brown received a sentence of 17 years — 27 total, with 10 suspended.

In another time or place, his record of community service, work, and academic achievement might have made him a candidate for parole. Parole, which permits certain offenders to serve out a remainder of their sentences under supervised release, has featured in American criminal justice since the early 1900s. It appealed to Progressive Era reformers, who saw it as a motivation and a reward for rehabilitation. Maine adopted parole in 1913, and by mid-century, so had every other state. The shine wore off quickly, though. A national “law and order” movement coalesced around Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign, repudiating the idea that social programs could cure the underlying causes of crime and giving a racialized wink and nod to the subset of voters aghast at Civil Rights unrest. In the ensuing decades, policing intensified, sentences lengthened, and the prison population doubled, then doubled, then doubled again. “Truth in sentencing” became a popular talking point, the idea being that prison terms ought to be served in full, not subject to the discretion of a parole board — you do the crime, you pay the time.

In Maine, public perception was that the parole board had gotten too lenient, and in 1975, the state legislature passed, and Governor James Longley signed, a bill making Maine the first state to abolish parole — anyone sentenced after April 1976 would be ineligible to apply to the parole board. California and Indiana followed suit, then Illinois and New Mexico. Today, there are 16 states without parole, and Congress did away with it for federal offenders in 1984.

Talk of bringing back parole has intermittently stirred up in Augusta. In the early ’90s, with the corrections department facing overcrowded prisons, the head of the parole board and the warden of the state prison both publicly lobbied for it. In 1999, a parole bill was introduced into the legislature but failed to gain traction. In 2016, a group of inmates tried to initiate a voter referendum on a parole-like system. Now, just three Maine offenders remain under the parole board’s jurisdiction, on account of committing their crimes so long ago. The only one still in prison is a murderer who has been locked back up after violating terms of early release in the past. So when a push for parole got underway a couple of years ago at the statehouse — the most serious such effort to date — someone who seemed more deserving of a second chance, Brandon Brown, found himself the de facto face of the movement, and his story, for the second time in his life, started making headlines.

Growing up was neither particularly easy, as Brown describes it, nor particularly hard. He spent his early-elementary years in Texas. His family moved often, bouncing him from school to school. His parents divorced. His mom moved to Georgia. When Brown was in fourth grade, his dad, who’s from Maine, relocated him and his two older sisters to Cape Elizabeth. The family peregrinations continued, with stints in the western Maine town of Wilton and in Dover, New Hampshire. Brown wasn’t much of a student (“I probably only read my first book cover to cover when I was held in county jail,” he recalls. “It’s embarrassing to admit that now, and I think the book was from the Twilight series.”). Instead, he threw himself into athletics. In high school, he played soccer, lacrosse, and basketball. “Sports were the only way I fit in every time we moved,” he says.

During high school, he returned to Cape Elizabeth. He’d grown at least 12 inches in just a few years, nearing his full height of six-foot-five, and at the first basketball practice of his senior season, in 2005, he blew out his knee. His family didn’t have health insurance and tried to put off surgery. One afternoon, Brown came downstairs without his crutches, and his dad chewed him out. There was an escalating exchange of words — neither remembers exactly what was said — and the next thing either knew, they were wrestling with each other on the floor. “I’d never had an interaction like that with my dad before,” Brown says. “I was so shocked by it that I left and didn’t come back.”

He moved in with a friend’s family in South Portland, transferring schools one last time. For more than a year, he had almost no contact with his own family. He started going to parties, drinking alcohol, and smoking weed. After high school, he worked hourly jobs — LongHorn Steakhouse, Footlocker — and spent months couch surfing and living out of a car. At 19, he was arrested for marijuana possession during a traffic stop. He accrued multiple speeding tickets and lost his license. Soon, he was dealing weed and renting an apartment, which he outfitted with an air mattress, a television, an Xbox, and nothing else. He eventually reconciled with his dad, although he still kept his family at arm’s length. He got in a few fights around town. He bought several handguns. “I thought I was the shit,” he says, “although I doubt anyone else did.”

Then came that evening at the Cactus Club. Brown had ordered pizza for delivery to the bar, where he was nursing a beer as he waited. After a little while, a group he recognized walked in. One of the guys, he says, had recently stolen drugs from the friend sitting with him. Another was James Sanders, an ex-Marine who worked as a bouncer at Platinum Plus, a strip club from which he had tossed Brown months earlier. Brown felt like the group across the bar was eyeing him and his friend, so he briefly ducked back into his apartment, picked out a pistol with a laser sight, and shoved it in his waistband. His idea, he says, was that he and his friend were outnumbered, and the red laser beam would serve as a deterrent if tensions rose. (“It’s hard for me to say that out loud,” he says, “because I realize it was incredibly stupid.”) Pizzas arrived, and Brown went out to pay the driver at the curb. At the same time, his friend started jawing with a few guys from the other group who had also stepped outside. Brown nosed in, and all of a sudden, he felt himself being tackled off the sidewalk and into the street. He scrambled back to his feet and saw Sanders standing nearest him, maybe eight feet away. He drew his gun, leveled it, and a little red dot flickered on Sanders’s chest.

“It was like time was frozen,” Brown remembers. “Complete silence. So much adrenaline.” He saw out of the corner of his eye a knife on the ground between him and Sanders (it was his own, fallen from his pocket in the scuffle, although he didn’t admit as much until years later). He says he thought Sanders made a move for the knife. He pulled the trigger. Sanders collapsed on the pavement.

James Sanders barely survived. He was partially paralyzed and has, over the past 14 years, suffered a litany of physical and mental health complications. Brown was sure he had acted in self-defense. “I didn’t feel a single bit of remorse,” he says. “I convinced myself that what I had done was unfortunate but not necessarily wrong.”

A jury found otherwise, convicting Brown of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault, and a judge sentenced him to 17 years in prison. If he accrued the maximum amount of good time — a credit system for staying out of trouble in prison — Brown was looking, in practical terms, at between 13 and 14 years. (Parole opponents often point to good time as an adequate manner of reducing sentences for good behavior. Parole proponents say that judges already account for good-time reductions in their sentencing and that good time rewards docility, not rehabilitation.) Brown’s opinion of his crime evolved over the first few years of his incarceration. “At first, I hadn’t been mature enough to see how my decisions created this reality,” he says. “I chose to go upstairs and get a gun. I ended up hurting somebody. Nobody else pulled that trigger.” He also started to consider the totality of the impact: “James’s family is fucked. My family is fucked. There were a lot of eyewitnesses who have to live with that incredibly traumatic event for the rest of their lives. And I’m always going to be the source of that trauma.”

In 2013, state representative Jeffrey Evangelos attended a reception for graduates of the associate’s-degree program at the prison. He was moved by a speech Brown gave about the role of education in altering his life’s trajectory. Evangelos, a four-term Independent from the midcoast lobstering community of Friendship, describes himself, half-jokingly, as “a left-wing radical from the 1960s,” even though his constituency skews conservative. (His campaign leaflets feature Red Sox and Patriots schedules on the front and tide charts on the back — something practical to stick on the fridge.) He lives on an old farmstead and has one cow, Sheba. He bought her for beef, and, for more than a decade, has kept her as a pet — she comes trotting whenever he calls her name.

State representative Jeffrey Evangelos is the legislature’s criminal-justice reformer in chief.

In Augusta, Evangelos has a reputation as an implacable reformer on criminal justice. “People think I’m anti–law enforcement or pro-criminal,” he says, “but my father was a Massachusetts state cop for 23 years. I just want what’s right.” In the past two terms, he introduced a bill to end time limits for post-conviction reviews of new and potentially exonerating evidence, a bill mandating the creation of special integrity units to investigate questionable convictions, and a bill requiring the reassessment of seemingly excessive sentences. Two of the bills stalled in the appropriations committee, and the other died in the Senate.

Once Brown was working toward his master’s degree, Evangelos resolved to try to get him out of prison ahead of schedule by helping him apply to the governor for executive clemency, the sole recourse for anyone in his position since the elimination of parole. Clemency can take one of two forms: a pardon forgives a crime; a commutation reduces a sentence. Of the two, Maine governors issue pardons far more often, usually to people who have already finished serving their time — a woman whose old misdemeanor theft conviction prevented her from working as a home-care provider, or a man who boosted a snowmobile at 18 and simply wanted to live without the stigma of being a felon.

Commutations are a trickier political proposition. Showing mercy to someone still in custody — someone who could, possibly, reoffend if freed — might backfire. In 2017, Governor Paul LePage granted early release to 17 inmates in one day, but the move was less an act of compassion, more a tactic in a standoff with the legislature over whether the governor had authority to close a detention center in Machiasport. Otherwise, there have been only 10 commutations since 1990. Although history wasn’t on his side, Brown asked Governor Janet Mills to suspend three years of his sentence, enough, with good-time credit, to guarantee his release. His application ran into the hundreds of pages, comprising a personal essay, letters of support from professors, academic transcripts, and prison records.

A note from James Sanders was enclosed as well. Evangelos had tracked down his current address, in Georgia, and mailed a letter explaining Brown’s application for clemency (Brown is prohibited from directly contacting Sanders). “It’s rad to hear that you’re doing well,” Sanders wrote back, addressing Brown. He described the long-term impacts of being shot: a leg amputation due to infection, a section of abdominal muscle removed to patch the entry wound, an inflammatory bone condition. He was in recovery after a drug addiction. He had attempted suicide.

However, through all of that, I have been meaning to write this letter for a while, to say I hope your growth continues and that I let go of anger and pain. Forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be. So with that said, I hope this helps towards an early release for you. Take care, my dude.

Jimmy Sanders

The governor’s clemency board reviewed the case and sent its sealed recommendation to the governor, who denied Brown’s application without explanation.

Evangelos was furious. His first thought was, “Fuck this, I’m filing a parole bill. We can’t keep doing things this way.” The denial of Brown’s petition turned into a rallying cry for an alternative to the clemency process. “If Brandon Brown doesn’t qualify for a commutation, nobody does,” Evangelos says. He introduced to the legislature “An Act to Reestablish Parole.” Under its terms, anyone serving 25 years to life would be able to file with the parole board after 20 years. Anyone serving between one and 20 years would have to wait until halfway through a sentence. And it would apply retroactively to people already in prison. Amid the public debate that followed, Brown became something of a cause célèbre.

Evangelos gets stacks of mail from inmates who’ve heard about his work on criminal-justice issues.

Both sides often accuse the other of cherry-picking examples to make their points — touting paragons of self-improvement or instances of the most heinous crimes. “I don’t think Brandon Brown is a typical case,” says Arthur Jette, Maine chapter leader of Parents of Murdered Children and Other Survivors of Homicide Victims, which circulates petitions against individual parole applications in states that have parole. “He’s an outlier and, it seems to me, an example that was ripe for the media. I hate to be so cynical, but they found a poster boy. For me, that doesn’t tip the scales.”

One day in 1999, Jette’s stepdaughter was at work while a friend took care of her 21-month-old son. The friend had a restraining order against an ex-boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend showed up and shot both the friend and the toddler in the head. Jette got a call at work and rushed to the scene to intercept his stepdaughter. “There is no restitution or restorative justice for the wanton taking of another person’s life,” he wrote in testimony to the legislature, against Evangelos’s parole bill. The experience of losing a loved one like that, he told me, “changes you down to your DNA, and it’s seemingly irreversible — at least it hasn’t reversed for me yet.”

He’s not, however, entirely opposed to parole. If murderers and certain other categories of violent offenders were precluded, he might reconsider his stance. The idea of murderers having the right to appear before a parole board is “an insult to the value of the life that’s taken,” he says. “The victims of murder can’t appear at a hearing to tell anybody what they think is justice.”

Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, was among those worried about the toll that uncertainty over sentences might take on victims and their families, who can spend years preparing for a perpetrator to get out: readying themselves emotionally, deciding where they’ll live, arranging protective orders and other precautions. The possibility of parole, Stark says, makes that planning much more challenging. Her larger concern, though, is what she sees as the inadequacy of both rehabilitative programs inside correctional facilities and re-entry programs outside. Reinstituting parole without building up the infrastructure around it, she thinks, puts the cart before the horse.

At the same time, Stark notes, many factors, often overlapping — mental illness, discrimination, substance abuse — can lead a person to commit crime, and that’s why her organization came out neither for nor against the bill. “I think we all share an understanding that incarceration does harm and that it’s been egregiously overused,” she says. “What’s less clear is what amount of incarceration is right.”

Supporters of the parole bill included the ACLU of Maine, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. For Evangelos, the issue is, at root, a moral one. “You and I get sentenced to prison the same day,” he hypothesizes. “We both have 30 years. We both keep our noses clean, but you get a job and go to college while I sit around and play cards. Then, you and I still get out of prison on the exact same day. That’s not okay to me.” A parole board, he contends, can base decisions on the extent to which a person has worked toward rehabilitating. He also likes to say, “The quality of a civilization is measured by the degree of its empathy and belief in redemption.”

Another argument is fiscal: parole can reduce the prison population, and supervising a parolee costs as little as a tenth of what it costs to house an inmate. Another pertains to community safety: if parole encourages reform, it reduces the risk of recidivism — a 2013 report from the RAND Corporation, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that inmates who participated in educational programming were 43 percent less likely to commit another crime. “Formal education obviously isn’t for everyone,” Brown notes, “but there are people as driven as I am, just in other areas — artists, musicians, welders. There’s a ton of drive in that prison.”

Jeremy Pratt, an attorney who penned testimony in support of the bill for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, adds that parole can act as a check on erratic sentencing practices by evaluating individuals over time, not only in the immediate wake of their crime. Judges in Maine have wide discretion, and studies have found inconsistent sentences from case to case. “It’s all over the place,” Pratt says. “Clients always ask me what I think they’ll get, and I tell them I have no idea until I know the judge.” A man got 10 years for attempted murder after he hit his wife in the head with a rock and pushed her off a cliff in Camden Hills State Park. A Milbridge man got eight years for attempted murder and aggravated assault with a gun. Brown got about double those sentences.

In the legislature, the House passed the parole bill; the Senate did not. Evangelos overhauled it, creating a measure not to reestablish parole but rather to form a study group, of legislators and outside experts, to further evaluate the issue and then produce a new bill. It passed both chambers and went to the governor’s desk last year, where it sat unsigned for months, running out the clock on the time allotted for the study group to do its work. Normally, an unsigned bill becomes law after 10 days, but a quirk of the state constitution says the governor can simply hold a bill passed on the last day of a legislative session — as this one was. Evangelos recalled the bill from the governor and pushed the study group’s deadline to the end of this year. This time, it became law without her signature.

The study group will first gather in July, leaving five months for its work. Francine Garland Stark, from the Coalition to End Domestic Violence, thinks that’s “an unreasonable amount of time in which to accomplish such an important task.” Evangelos is pleased enough with the outcome, although he’s grown so frustrated by the legislative process that he’s not running again. His term will be up when it comes time to debate a new parole bill early next year.

He realizes that much hinges on Governor Mills. In an emailed response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the governor wrote, “Under parole, innocent individuals would be repeatedly subjected to the possibility that the offender will be released, forcing them to relive the crime at every parole hearing. In the push to reestablish parole, the voices of the victim, and the transparency of our individualized sentencing process, should not be ignored.”

The governor is a former prosecutor, Evangelos notes, and she’s heading into an election against former governor Paul LePage, who would be keen to paint her as soft on crime. Whether she’s personally disinclined toward parole or politically pragmatic about it doesn’t make much difference.

Both Brown and Evangelos brought up, in the course of making their case for parole, Leo Hylton. Hylton arrived at the Maine State Prison shortly after Brown. He too got involved with hospice care, the NAACP, and dog training, and he has a job organizing programming at the prison. He earned his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and, eventually, followed Brown into the same master’s program. He’s aiming to continue on the PhD track. Hylton, however, is nowhere near the end of his sentence.

He grew up in Augusta. His mother, a native Mainer, worked long hours, and his father, who was Jamaican, inflicted a steady regimen of physical abuse on him, justifying it as training, reiterating that a Black person living in an overwhelmingly white place always had to be ready to fight. Hylton ran away often. Once, he went out a second-floor window and jumped into a snowbank, after police had already brought him back to the house. Another time, he sprinted through four lanes of traffic on Route 202 to escape school. Finally, one night, he was hiding out on a neighboring home’s porch, and the woman who lived there found him, brought him inside, and gave him the business card of a social worker she knew. A few days later, at age 10, Hylton walked to a pay phone in a Rite Aid parking lot and called the number on the card. Soon, he was a ward of the state, placed into foster care.

Several weeks after his 18th birthday, he and his foster brother, Daniel Fortune, broke into a house in Pittston, to rob a safe. Fortune had burglarized the house before and been caught. The plan was to take enough to cover his resulting legal fees. “For some reason, that made sense,” Hylton recalls. He brought a machete, he says, to use as intimidation. As they crept into the house in the dark, a security alarm started blaring. A man came into the hallway. “In that moment, my mind snapped, and I reverted back to my father’s training,” Hylton says. “Any normal human being would have run away, but that didn’t cross my mind.” He struck the man with the blade of the machete. Then, a 10-year-old girl wandered from a bedroom, and he brought the machete down on her too. Both were severely injured, but they lived. Hylton pleaded guilty to multiple counts of attempted murder and received a 50-year sentence.

Maybe even more so than Brown’s case, Hylton’s seems to put to the test the extent to which a horrific crime can be punished at the same time as personal growth is rewarded. Recently, he published an article in Religions, a peer-reviewed theology journal, examining the relationship between spirituality and trauma healing. (He has become a devout follower of Christianity.) He’s also an employee of Colby College, co-teaching with an anthropology professor a course on incarceration and its alternatives.

Hylton is wary of complacency. He’s watched other inmates succumb to it. Prison creates a sense of “stuck-ness,” he says. For now, the master’s-degree program keeps him busy and engaged. He remembers, though, a terrified feeling as he neared the end of his bachelor’s degree not knowing whether he’d be permitted to continue with his studies. “What am I going to do,” he asked himself, “when I’ve done everything there is to do here?”

In early 2020, Brandon Brown left the Maine State Prison, transferring a mile up the road to Bolduc Correctional Facility. There are no fences around Bolduc. He could wear his own clothes and take walks on a mile-and-a-half trail through the woods. Residents tend to 90 acres of fields and raise cows, pigs, and horses. One morning, Brown was part of a group permitted to take their service-dogs-in-training for a stroll through downtown Rockland. Summer travel was in full swing, and the sidewalks were bustling. It was “a lot of stimulation, a lot of sensory overload,” Brown said on the phone later that day — it was unclear whether he meant for Chewy, an English cream retriever and poodle mix, or for himself.

Brown, in 2020, wearing George Mason University’s green and gold.

At the time, Brown was feeling more hopeful than ever of getting out. A law requiring the corrections department to expand its program of supervised community confinement was going into effect: once down to 30 months left on a sentence (or, if serving less than six years, down to one-third of the sentence), a minimum-security prisoner could apply to serve the remaining time on the outside, overseen by a probation officer, with approved weekly schedules, regular check-ins, and random drug tests. It’s not parole, Evangelos is quick to point out, even if it shares some features. Unlike with parole, its fixed, limited time frame means it has a proportionally greater impact on people with shorter sentences.

Still, Brown wasn’t any less eager for it. He filed his application well in advance, and the new policy kicked in at midnight on October 18. Eight hours later, Brown, 35 years old, was greeted by his dad, his sister, and Evangelos on the front lawn at Bolduc, there to take him away. They stopped at Moody’s Diner, in Waldoboro, and he tucked into a loaded omelet while processing what had just transpired. He was fighting a sensation of unreality — he felt numb, he says.

More freedom made managing his time with schoolwork more of a challenge as he started into PhD classes through George Mason. He also had to learn to cook, and he was overwhelmed by grocery stores — “In prison, there were like five types of chips you could buy,” he says, “and now there’s a whole aisle.” This spring, his probation officer approved a trip to Virginia so that he could present at a conference and, for the first time, visit his college campus. He drives down to South Portland once a week to mentor kids at the Long Creek juvenile detention center, attends a weekly reentry support group in Lewiston, and, this fall, is teaching a University of Maine at Augusta course on narratives of incarceration.

The face of the parole movement in Maine no longer needs parole. He met some people in prison who should never get out, he says, and others who should, sooner than their sentences allow. Sometimes, he experiences pangs of guilt at being on the outside, going on hiking and fishing trips on weekends, spending time with family, while friends of his — “genuinely good people,” he says — are locked up.

On the morning of his release, after breakfast, Brown and his dad and sister eventually parted company with Evangelos and headed west, to their family’s camp near the New Hampshire border, where he would live for a while. The road followed the course of the Androscoggin River. The sun was setting behind the White Mountains. The trees were in full fall color. “That was when it hit me that a part of my life was over, that I got to start something new,” he says. “And look how beautiful what’s new can be.”