By Haley Hersey, Staff Writer
Director of Justice Policy Program at the Muskie Institute, George Shaler, is one of the researchers and authors of a first-of-its-kind study regarding the use of alternative sentencing in Maine. The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence approached Shaler and some colleagues, wanting to learn more about how deferred disposition was used in Maine, and if the appropriate sanctions issued were deterrent enough for them engaging in the behaviors they do.
Shaler, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and Hamilton College, shared his inspiration to take part in the research “came from wanting to see the justice system be responsive to the needs of defendants and victims.”
In the late 1990s early 2000s, Shaler became interested in how data can be used to adjust and improve the justice system. He ultimately noticed a lack of successful rehabilitation. “The system obviously needs to do a better job, people are going back into the same activities. It didn’t seem like the system was being responsive to their needs,” Shaler stated.
As director of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center, Shaler is committed to making use of data to drive justice-based policy in the state. He is part of a network of statistical analysis centers across the country, including all states except one. Shaler engages in research regarding justice systems and looks at them in order to inform justice system practice in respective states.
Shaler says that deferred disposition is “interesting to the general public” because it is a different way to sentence people.
According to the Office of Public Affairs, “Cases of deferred disposition, which give defendants the chance to earn reduced or dismissed sentences, rose 12.8% from 2014 to 2017.” Additionally, researchers “examined the characteristics of 18,357 deferred dispositions that were granted from 2014 to 2019 and were either successfully or unsuccessfully completed.”
For their research, they received a two-year grant to look at deferred disposition across the state over a five-year period. Deferred disposition essentially allows defendants a chance to reduce their sentence from a felony to a misdemeanor if they live up to terms agreed upon for a given time frame. The goal of this form of alternative sentencing is to promote rehabilitation. However, 49% of deferred cases had subsequent cases via the report. Shaler insisted it is important to note the difficulty of breaking that lifestyle.
Downstream versus upstream sentencing options were a focus of Shaler’s. Downstream meaning prisons and jails versus upstream being more preventative, rehabilitation options. Upstream sentencing works with people before they get too involved with illegal practices, rather than just locking them up.
George Shaler’s co-authors were: Robyn Dumont, Research Associate; Tara Wheeler, Research Analyst; George Shaler, Senior Research Associate; Elisabeth Snell, Senior Policy Associate; Brook Vail, Research Analyst.
“We incarcerate a lot of people in this country. I think there is a growing number of people who realize just incarcerating people is not going to help them. We need to provide resources and treatment options,” Shaler expressed.
For those interested in learning more about the results of the study, the full report can be found here.