Wednesday, December 11, 2013
AUGUSTA — The Maine State Board of Corrections voted today to fully fund the state's jails for rest of the fiscal year, despite the board not having enough money to fund even 25 percent of the requests, in hopes of forcing the Legislature to cough up the rest of the promised money.
State Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum
Staff file photo by David Leaming
The board voted 7–1, with one member not present, to fund the full amount that officials from each county estimated they need, saying if the jails don't get the money, they will be facing catastrophic shortfalls that put jail employees in danger and cripple the jails' ability to operate by forcing mass layoffs throughout the state's jails.
The board does not have the exact amount of the requests because not all counties have submitted budget proposals yet.
Chairman Mark Westrum said while he supports the idea of demanding full funding from the Legislature, he cautioned the board that they will likely receive sharp backlash from their representatives for the move.
"We better be prepared for some hot criticism," Westrum said. "I think it's responsible for us to put this back in the hands of the Legislature ... I just want to make sure the board is prepared to deal with the end result of what might happen."
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who made the motion to fully fund the requests, said he was willing to accept any state backlash for their decision.
"That's OK, because flat funding would be catastrophic," Liberty said.
Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said he would rather face retribution from the State House than risk trying to run his jail on a budget that can't fund basic security measures and could lead to injury and a lawsuit.
"I would face the Legislature any day than go to federal court and face being sued," he said.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, who sits on the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, was present at the board meeting but said he was only in attendance to listen and learn about the problems to prepare for the next legislative session.
Wilson said when the Legislature reconvenes this fall it will only be addressing the issue of bonds and the request for full jail funding would, by his estimate, not be addressed until possibly April.
Jail officials reported to the board that if they were not fully funded, they would be forced to take drastic measures including laying off corrections officers, closing down cell blocks, issuing summons instead of arresting misdemeanor offenders, refusing to accept more inmates from other jails, ceasing to transport inmates to their court dates and demanding the local police help with their duties.
Officials also said even these were not workable solutions, because inmate populations cannot be reduced in a system that is already short on bed space. Somerset Count Correctional Facility is also no longer accepting extra inmates or cooperating with the board, even though it is one of the four "flagship jails" that was supposed to serve as a large central jail and accept inmates from the surrounding communities.
Board member Amy Fowler, Waldo County commissioner, said by demanding that the Legislature fully fund the jails, the board is just enforcing the original law that created the consolidated jail system, which states the board was responsible for fully funding the amount the counties need to operate.
The state's 15 county jails were run independently until 2009, when Gov. John Baldacci created the Board of Corrections, composed primarily of county officials, to oversee a unified system. The hope was that consolidating the jails would offer chances to find efficiencies to reduce the overall costs of county corrections.
The legislation that created the board sought to create property tax relief by capping money raised by counties for corrections at 2008 levels, which totals $62.3 million. The state, meanwhile, promised that it would make up the difference to meet the jails' actual operating costs.
The state, however, has never fully funded the legislation.
Corrections expert Rod Miller of the U.S. Department of Justice presented research last month saying the states jails were in crisis and being forced to make decisions that compromise safety and put the public at risk by cutting officer positions — the only thing left to cut in the increasingly barebones budgets.
His report said the state's jails are also in disrepair and money set aside for improvements has been swallowed up to maintain operations.
The budget crunch has forced administrators to scrap programs aimed at reducing recidivism. Westrum and other members of the board have repeatedly expressed frustration that they waste their time scrounging for money when one of the original reasons for forming the board was to promote programs to reduce the reoffense rate.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252