(The Center Square) – A federal court is considering a lawsuit over Gov. Janet Mills' decision to cut off unemployment benefits to prisoners who lost early release jobs during the pandemic.
On Monday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston heard oral arguments in the legal challenge by about 50 prisoners who received more than $200,000 in jobless benefits because they had been laid off from work release programs.
Marc Sparks, the lead plaintiff in the case, filed the lawsuit last June claiming that his 14th Amendment right to due process was violated by the "unlawful seizure" of money that was owed to him through federal and state unemployment programs.
Before the state shut down businesses and the early release program to prevent spread of COVID-19, Sparks was serving a sentence for manslaughter and driving under the influence at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, and working as a restaurant grill cook, according to court papers. He received more than $10,000 in jobless benefits.
But Mills stopped the jobless payments in May and ordered the state Department of Revenue to freeze the bursary accounts of any inmates who had received the benefits.
In a letter to Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, Mills called the decision to provide jobless benefits to inmates "appalling" and "bad public policy."
"While work release offers inmates a valuable opportunity to learn skills, support local employers, and earn a salary that could be used to pay restitution to victims it is a privilege – not a right – and any inmate that loses that privilege, for whatever reason, should not have access to a limited public benefits system," Mills wrote to Liberty.
The Maine attorney general’s office, which had previously cleared the payments, argued that the prisoners weren't deprived of their rights and asked the courts to toss the case out.
In March, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that Sparks' rights weren't violated because he wasn't deprived of "the essentials necessary to sustain life."
But the plaintiffs appealed the case, arguing that Walker erred in his decision.
On Monday, the appeals court didn't issue a decision in the case but the justices gave both parties 10 days to work out a resolution before they issue a final ruling.