December 17, 2013

Franklin County commissioners review state jail report, agree to make payment

Commissioners previously voted to withhold their semi-annual payment into the unified jail system until they reviewed the results of the Commission to Study the Board of Corrections and the Unified County Jail System.

By Kaitlin Schroeder
Staff Writer

FARMINGTON — Franklin County commissioners agreed to pay their semi-annual payment to the state jail system Tuesday morning, which they had considered withholding pending the findings of the state’s jail study commission.

The study commission recommended the state significantly increase the authority of the Maine Board of Corrections in a 71-page report that was finalized Friday.

The report proposes giving the board power to create state standards, manage resources, offer incentives for cooperating and issue consequences for defiance.

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols said it’s best to cooperate with the system while awaiting results from the Legislature on both the study commission’s recommendation and the board of corrections November recommendation that the Franklin County jail be reopened as fully operating as long as the state provides $600,000 in funding.

“I guess you could say we’ve had some success if you consider where we were eight months ago,” Nichols said. The Franklin County jail is limited to holding prisoners up to 72 hours as part of the consolidated jail system that went into effect in 2009. Eight months ago, a subgroup of the board of corrections recommended the board reopen the jail as a fully operating facility. The recommendation was voted down.

Commissioner Gary McGrane said he thought the jail study commission was correct in recommending that the Legislature increase the Board of Correction’s authority.

He said the problems with the system come from counties not working together with uniform standards, and if the board had more authority, then it could solve those problems.

“It’s like a hand and glove. It’s all got to work together or it’s not going to work,” he said.

Franklin County was billed only $92,000 to board out its inmates this half-year instead of the usual bill, which typically is closer to $300,000. The reason for the difference, Nichols said, is that when the state calculated upcoming payments earlier this year, Franklin County submitted numbers based on an incorrect prediction that the county’s jail would have been reopened by now. Nichols said they predicted the jail would not be operating by this time as a 72-hour holding facility and they would no longer need to pay $300,000 to board their inmates elsewhere.

Nichols said while the Legislature studies the jail proposals, he could use the money saved by the smaller bill to go around the system and pay Somerset County directly to take inmates, if he has continued problems finding jails to take inmates held longer than 72 hours.

“I still fear there may be issues down the road. If there are issues down the road, we’ll have money in the back to house prisoners at Somerset,” he said.

Somerset County was cut out of the state jail system earlier this year in a dispute with the board of corrections about federal boarder revenue; and since then, Nichols said, it has been difficult and time-consuming to find other jails to take Franklin County boarder inmates.

Somerset County in May filed a civil suit against the state board of corrections for payment of more than $280,000 the county says it is owed for operations at the Somerset County Jail for the third quarter of the 2012-13 fiscal year.

For now, he said, most county prisoners are being held in prison, not jail, because space in other jails was unavailable.

The jail study commission listed this lack of bed space and coordination on its list of problems under the current unified system.

After reviewing the board and the unified jail system, study commission members found the board of corrections was not given authority or financial means to achieve the goals of coordinating the system statewide, finding efficiencies and reducing the re-offense rate.

The board said meager funding from the state kept it from addressing the re-offense rate and finding long-term savings.

The proposal is expected to be reviewed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the Legislature. Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee’s chairman, said by email that he would be available later in the week to discuss his findings further.

Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said after an initial review of the recommendations that he expects the Legislature to consider the report seriously.

McGrane said the report is clear in outlining the underlying causes of the problems, as well as in spelling out a proposed solution.

“I think it will fully inform the Legislature of the issue and the complexity of the problems we’re trying to overcome,” McGrane said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

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