November 1, 2013

Legislature to hear proposal to reform statewide county jail system

The commission studying the state jails will chose among three plans to suggest to lawmakers

By Kaitlin Schroeder kschroeder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The commission studying the state jails will choose among three plans to suggest to the Legislature as a way of reforming the beleaguered county jail system and addressing controversial funding shortfalls.

The competing trio of plans call for either consolidating the state’s jails into four regional systems; putting all jails under state control; or returning more of the control to counties.

Panel members will review the plans and expect to recommend one to the Legislature by the first week of December. The plans were released Friday during a meeting of the Commission to Study the State Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System.

The proposal to create four regional jail systems suggested that Somerset, Franklin, Kennebec and Piscataquis counties be combined into one region. Under the plan the regional jail authority would decide what jails would remain open in the region and which would be closed.

According to the proposal, the new system would aggregate resources for inmates with special needs, expand inmate re-entry services, consolidate functions such as payroll, save by economy of scale purchases of items including food and inmate medical services. The proposal also said the bed-space shortage would be also managed better by sharing a jail.

The state already has a smaller version of a regional jail system — Two Bridges Regional Jail — which is the jail for Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. The jails would be run by a governing board similar to Two Bridges with county managers, jail administrators and commissioners.

The board of corrections would have the power to direct regional authorities to implement policies.

Some members of the panel on Friday said they concerned that creating regional jails would not work because the different counties would not willingly buy into the consolidation.

Peter Crichton, Cumberland County administrator and board member, said some of the resistance the proposal might receive could come from reluctance to change, rather than flaws in the system.

“When something has been done the same way for a long time, there is an excessive loyalty to that way,” Crichton said.

The plan that would return more control to the counties calls for dropping the obligation that the state fund all future expenses above the county tax cap. It would instead remove the county tax cap, have the state still fund a portion of budget increases and have the board of corrections regulate the amount that property taxes are allowed to increase.

Under that system, the counties would decide individually if they wanted to continue to operate holding facilities or return to their jails to full operations.

“I think it’s important not to have some authority come down and say, ‘This is what’s best for Franklin County,’” said Peter Baldacci, Penobscot county commissioner and panel member who presented the county plan.

The third plan proposed a county jail system controlled by state authority. The state would centralize functions, distribute resources and oversee the jails.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who was not at the meeting Friday, said in a statement to the board that the current system does not work because of a lack of statewide standardization.

“State oversight provides better quality control and improves public safety,” Ponte wrote. “In contrast, some county jails are well run; others are not.”

He said the board already has the infrastructure in place in the counties to run the system, so there would be minimal upfront cost to creating the state-controlled system.

“I do not take the position that the state can do a better job than any county, but rather the state can offer a system that is already in place, in corrections, that can answer all of the limitations that presently exist with the Board of Corrections,” he wrote.

Members of the panel told David Flanagan, the chairman of the commission, that they were not ready to hold an informal straw vote Friday to see who favored which plan.

Flanagan said members of the panel should consider during their decision whether a solution is fair to taxpayers, reduces costs of providing corrections, provides funding accountability, is an enforceable solution and provides incentives for desired conduct from jail officials.

Flanagan said they should not create a criminal justice system that is more of a burden to people in one county compared people in another county.

“It should be something that reasonably provides equal access to justice no matter what system we adopt,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252kschroeder@centralmaine.com
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