The state’s county jails, the first holding facilities for the state’s accused criminals, from drunk drivers to murderers, were supposed to be streamlined and coordinated through a 2008 consolidation plan. Eight years later, the system is in complete meltdown with the coordinating state Board of Corrections so shorthanded it can’t continue to meet. Jail administrators and county officials say they are underfunded while Gov. Paul LePage has said the jails aren’t getting any more money — or appointments to the state board — from him.
Finding a way out of this stalemate, with a cost-effective, non-duplicative system, must be a priority of lawmakers this session. A decade of fights over funding and authority have delayed critical discussions about mental health and drug abuse counseling for inmates, many of whom are essentially warehoused at county jails.
The new system was meant to solve real problems. In some counties, jail costs accounted for more than half the county tax assessment, with jail costs increasing steadily at 9 percent a year. Several counties were preparing to borrow $110 million total to build new facilities or add to existing ones. Some jails were chronically overcrowded; others were underutilized.
Former Gov. John Baldacci proposed a state takeover of county jails as the remedy. That was rejected by lawmakers in favor of the nine-member state Board of Corrections with a mandate to manage the county jails as one system. In addition, county tax assessments for corrections were capped at the 2008 level. The Legislature was supposed to appropriate additional funds for the jails from the state’s general fund, based on a growth rate set by the board. In exchange, the state was able to board state prisoners at county jails for $24 to $45 a day, far below the true cost.
Three jails — Franklin, Oxford and Waldo — would become 72-hour holding facilities. Others, such as the Cumberland County Jail and the then-new Somerset County Jail, became flagship jails for longer stays. Through the board, jail crowding and underutilization would be managed through cooperation; inmates would go where there were available beds.
The goal was to establish a coordinated, efficient correctional system with sound fiscal management.
That hasn’t happened.
A 2011 report by the National Institute of Corrections found some successes in the consolidated system. The use of video arraignments and conferencing had reduced transportation and court costs. The state Department of Corrections had saved $3 million by housing inmates at county jails rather than out of state. The cost of transporting inmates was reduced through the use of a hub at the Penobscot County jail in Bangor. The jail building boom stopped.
But, problems far outweighed the positives, the institute concluded. The Board of Corrections and county officials spent too much time on budgets and not enough on programming and treatment for inmates; jail conditions were no better in 2011 than they were before the 2008 law, the institute found. There was no “master plan” for county-level detention, and many decisions were still made at the county level
There are two fundamental problems, says Ryan Thornell, the executive director of the Board of Corrections, who is leaving the job next week. First, he says, the board and jails are not being adequately funded by the state, with officials instead demanding greater efficiencies. While the crime rate has fallen substantially, the number of offenders held in Maine’s county jails more than doubled from 1993 to 2011, driven by mandatory sentences and an increase in offenders choosing jail time to lessen their fines. Inmates were also moved from state prisons to county jails under the state Community Corrections Act.
The bigger problem is that the board is not empowered to enforce its directives. If a county sheriff or county commissioners don’t follow a board directive, there are no real consequences other than a lawsuit. This played out in Somerset County in May 2012, when the county closed its jail to inmates from other counties because the Board of Corrections had not paid money owed the county for housing federal prisoners. The closure led to inmate transportation problems, overcrowding at some jails and empty beds at others and directly challenging the state’s jail network. Somerset County sued the board in 2013 and the case is now pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
A group tasked by the Legislature to study the Board of Corrections and its operation of the county jails officially declared the system broken in 2013.
“The plan to create a system designed to find efficiencies, enhance programs to reduce
recidivism and prevent overcrowding has been lost amongst turf battles over budget dollars and a sense of loss of local control and the lack of funding by the Legislature,” read the group’s report. Because the system was unable “to make clear and convincing justifications in a timely manner within the state budget process,” the county jails were flat-funded in the last state budget, further stressing a tenuous system.
The task force — chaired by David Flanagan, now interim president of the University of Southern Maine — suggested four options to solve the problem:
1. The return of jail management to the counties;
2. Creation of a new regional jail authority following the Two Bridges Regional Jail Authority model. Two Bridges serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties;
3. A complete state takeover; or
4. Changes of the Board of Corrections model to give the board real authority over budgets, contracts, standards and new construction.
Lawmakers chose the fourth option. They passed legislation in May to strengthen the board. But now, with only two of its statutorily required nine members, the board does not have a quorum and can no longer meet.
LePage, who has refused to appoint new members to the board as vacancies have piled up, has deepened the line in the sand over funding. “The governor does not support and will not support additional money for a broken system that has little accountability and a lack of efficient management of its financial operations,” his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said in an email Tuesday.
He left it to lawmakers to find a fix. “It is within the Legislature’s purview to restructure the system to one which is more effective and efficient with taxpayer money,” Bennett said. Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, who oversees the state’s prison system, declined to comment on the situation and possible solutions.
LePage has cited the high costs of local control in other areas of state and local government. He should use his bully pulpit to make the same point here.
Returning jail management to the counties is the easiest solution, but it solves none of the persistent problems inflate raise costs and shortchange offenders. A state takeover isn’t politically plausible. That leaves the difficult middle ground.
The system needs coordination, with a heavier hand from the state — in the form of the Board of Corrections or a new entity.
Susan Young is the BDN’s editorial page editor.