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National

Maine's Governor Releases Some Low-Level Prisoners To Fill Jobs

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The tough-talking governor of Maine is one of the last people you'd expect to be soft on crime. He supports reinstating the death penalty for drug traffickers and once joked they should be publicly executed by guillotine. But recently Governor Paul LePage did some unusual. He released 17 prison inmates early. And as Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports, he says he'll do it again.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: It's not that the conservative Republican governor has had a sudden change of heart about prison reform or giving low-risk offenders a second chance. Instead, LePage told a Maine radio station he's doing it for one reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL LEPAGE: Because the tourist industry is struggling, can't find enough workers. So we are looking at every corner of the state to try to put people back to work. That's what the commutation program's all about.

SHARON: State officials say Maine's 3 percent unemployment rate combined with a cap on certain types of foreign workers, an aging population and a booming tourism industry have exacerbated the labor gap. Help wanted signs are everywhere, and it's not just hotels and restaurants who need it.

(CROSSTALK)

SHARON: It's also companies like AtWork Personnel, a temporary staffing agency which recently sent recruiter Pamela Holt to a job fair.

So how great is your need?

PAMELA HOLT: Extremely. Our company is turning contractors away because we don't have enough staff to staff them.

SHARON: Holt's looking for people to fill jobs as flaggers for road construction and general labor. And while some in the tourist industry are reluctant to say they'll hire someone with a felony conviction and other employers just won't do it, Holt says her company will.

HOLT: I think there are certain offenses where you learned your lesson; you did your time. It's time to move on and start, you know, a new life.

SHARON: That's also the sentiment of prisoner advocates who don't normally see eye-to-eye with the governor on criminal justice matters.

MEAGAN SWAY: Our point of view is that commutations - when people do not need to be in prison, they should not be.

SHARON: Meagan Sway is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

SWAY: And so to the extent the governor recognizes that, we applaud that.

SHARON: Maine has a low rate of incarceration compared to other states, but Sway supports getting more inmates back to their communities and back to work. And if the governor is really serious about addressing Maine's labor shortage, Sway says he should do more.

SWAY: We also should look at immigrants who come to this country fleeing persecution who would very much like to work in this country.

SHARON: When it comes to Maine's immigrant community, Governor LePage hasn't exactly rolled out the welcome mat even though it's a population economists say Maine needs to replace - its aging workforce. And while 17 prisoners getting released early won't bridge the gap, Steve Hewins of the Maine Restaurant Association says it's a start.

STEVE HEWINS: You know, it's like a lot of things. It's part of the matrix of solutions. But yes, it could help.

SHARON: Hewins says his group is now talking about bringing specialized training for hospitality jobs into the Maine state prison system so that prisoners are prepared to fill jobs when they get out. And more could be getting out soon. Governor LePage said he plans to commute the sentences of women prisoners next and possibly some inmates from county jails. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "ACID RAINDROPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.