State lawmakers will soon consider a proposal to bring back parole for Maine’s incarcerated population, along with a handful of other recommendations from the Commission to Examine Reestablishing Parole.
Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec), a chair of that commission, has introduced a bill (LD 720) that would turn some of that commission’s recommendations into law, chief among them the restoration of parole – i.e. early release for prisoners – which has not existed in Maine for more than four decades.
The Commission, formed in the previous legislature, found what it called “staggering” racial disparities in Maine’s incarcerated population, and it recommended the creation of new pathways for rehabilitated prisoners to earn early release.
One of the top advocates for parole reform in Maine is an incarcerated man who recently began teaching a course at Colby College as a co-instructor despite being behind bars.
Leo R. Hylton (MDOC#70199) is a 32-year-old man currently incarcerated in Maine State Prison in Warren for crimes committed 15 years ago.
In recent years, as Maine policymakers have debated various changes to the criminal justice system, Hylton, who is a black man, has become something of a poster child for progressive prison reforms sometimes described as restorative justice.
Maine Public, in a 2021 story, quoted Hylton’s sister saying, “Leo has worked diligently to rise from a truly dark place. He’s now a light in this world again.” The story added that Hylton had become a mentor while in prison, but it does not mention the crimes that got him there. The left-wing Maine Beacon noted likewise noted Hylton had obtained a master’s degree, but it also did not share with readers his crimes. And, this week, the liberal Mother Jones magazine published the web version of a story that casts Hylton as a victim of circumstances beyond his control — his history as a foster child, for example — and a racist criminal justice system in Maine.
Abigail Glasgow, the author of the Mother Jones story, devotes a scant 25 words to the criminal acts that landed Hylton in prison.
But as Maine lawmakers consider making major changes to Maine’s criminal justice system — changes that would allow early release for men and women in circumstances similar to Hylton’s — the facts of Hylton’s case, and the cases of other potential parolees, should not be erased from news coverage. By all accounts, Hylton appears to have used his time in prison to educate himself and radically reorient his relationships with other people, and with God. But, in considering his potential early release, it’s necessary to consider his crimes.
In the early morning hours of May 27, 2008, Hylton, along with his foster brother Daniel S. Fortune, stole Hylton’s aunt’s car and drove to the home of former Maine state lawmaker William Guerrette. The brothers brought with them changes of clothing and gloves. Fortune armed himself with a long knife, while Hylton carried a machete. The men were after a safe which they had stolen weeks before — and they were prepared for violence.
After breaking into the family’s home and activating the security alarm, the men were confronted by Guerrette pleading with them to leave. Fortune struck him on his head, knocking him to the ground. Guerrette then scrambled to his bedroom to retrieve a handgun — a weapon he had earlier purchased specifically to defend his family from Hylton and Fortune after the earlier theft. When Guerrette’s handgun malfunctioned, Hylton struck him several times with the machete. What happened next is detailed in court records from Fortune’s trial:
“At this time, the ten-year-old daughter came out of her upstairs bedroom and looked over the railing to the first floor. Her father yelled at her to get back into her room. The girl saw a person come up the stairs toward her; that man, Hylton, “scaled the stairs as fast as [he] could” and struck at the younger daughter, who was “cowering against the wall,” at least four or five times as her father watched from below. Hylton later stated that the younger daughter was a witness and that he kept swinging at her even after she “[went] down” because he had to make sure there were no witnesses. The father tried to get to her, but Fortune was fighting him, “hitting” and “hacking” him, and knocking him down as the father slipped in his own blood. The father lost consciousness.
“As this was happening, the mother could hear horrible screaming. She tried the phone, but it was dead. She shut and locked the master bedroom door, ran into the bathroom and locked the door, pushed out the window screen, dropped to the ground, and started running. After she left the house, the mother heard someone kick in the bathroom door, so she ran through the woods to a neighboring house where the police were called. The older daughter, who had been sleeping in a bedroom in the lower level of the house, hid under her bed, eventually got her cell phone, and also called the police. The teenage son, who had been sleeping on the sofa in the game room in the main part of the lower level, started to go upstairs, but when the basement door slammed shut, he instead ran out the lower level doors and hid in the backyard.“
According to court records, the first officer to arrive on the scene believed the ten-year-old daughter was dead because of the extent of her and her father’s “devastating and disfiguring life-long injuries.” Her father would later tell journalists his daughter required several major surgeries and needed to relearn how to perform basic tasks. Her life was permanently changed by the attack.
Hylton was arrested on May 29, 2008, and began cooperating with police. He confessed, on video, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2010. Under current law, the earliest Hylton could be released from prison is December 8, 2050. He was 18 when he attacked the young girl, and he would be 60 years old upon release.
However, the current legislature could lay the groundwork for Hylton to breathe free air earlier than that.
In March of 2022, a bill from Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship) became law without Gov. Janet Mills signature. While his original bill would have simply re-established parole, the language that ended up becoming law instead created the commission whose recommendations are now up for a vote in the form of LD 720, the current parole bill moving through Augusta.
LD 720 is a concept draft right now, but the description of the bill indicates it will rely heavily on the commission’s 240 page report when written.
The fourth recommendation of that report is for Maine to re-establish parole. That item was supported 7-2, with opposition votes coming Commissioner Liberty and Rep. Scott Cyrway (R-Albion). Three other members abstained. Regarding the conditions for parole, the commission was also divided:
“During the commission’s discussion about reestablishing parole, some commission members expressed concern about making parole available to all sentences and suggested that the Legislature carefully consider whether to exclude certain types of sentences, such as repeat offenders in cases domestic violence and repeat offenders in cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation.”
In subsequent recommendations, the commission said the legislature should develop clear criteria for incarcerated individuals serving more than 20 years. In particular, the commission recommended that the legislature should construct eligibility criteria that might mitigate historical racial or ethnic biases against inmates.
“The membership of the [parole] board must, to the extent practicable, reflect the diversity of the State, including, but not limited to, diversity in geographic location, cultural and ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity and professional experience,” the report states, though it doesn’t say whether the commission would support identity-based quotas for board membership spots, which are typically gubernatorial appointments. The commission members differed over how they thought parole should be constructed and who should be eligible for parole, should it be re-established in Maine.
Who is eligible for parole and how the parole board operates will be determined by the legislature as it fleshes out LD 720.
Central to that debate will be questions over men like Hylton and their crimes.
How long should men who commit heinous, deliberate violence against children remain in prison?
What does society owe those who turn their lives around after they are deprived of their liberty?
Can men capable of such wicked crimes ever truly change their hearts? And what does it mean when they do?
What role does a victim’s lingering suffering play?
How does a society balance the human desire for justice and vengeance against the hopeful belief in the redemption of all men and the possibility of forgiveness?
These and other questions will soon come before the Judiciary Committee.