AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has rolled out a proposal to hand oversight of Maine’s 15 county jails to a new state commission and potentially close five of them while regionalizing the system.

One sheriff said he was “shocked” by the January proposal from the Maine Department of Corrections, which is the Republican governor’s latest step toward overhauling a county jail system that has struggled with shortfalls for years under a county and state governing structure.

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Now, Maine has 14 county jails and another regional jail serving Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties. They’re controlled by counties, which pay $62 million of the total cost of $80 million. The state pays the rest, but that structure has been a problem.

The Maine Board of Corrections, set up to oversee that system, stalled in 2015 because LePage didn’t fill vacancies. He has hammered the arrangement, saying it gives counties no incentive to rein in spending and that either the state or counties should fully fund and manage jails.

[LePage looks to elude Board of Corrections with county jail ‘receiver’]

The plan would create a new Maine Jail Commission with an executive director and seven members appointed by the governor overseeing three regional jail authorities — in northern, central and southern regions — controlling five jails each.

That would constitute a significant shift of oversight to state government. While the boards of those lower authorities would include county officials, they would get their funding and direction from the commission.

The proposal says that a “first order of business” will be to implement one data management system to be used by each authority. Cost-savings estimates are unclear, but the department said they could be “felt immediately with the closure of 1-2 facilities in each region.”

The department didn’t respond to Monday requests for comment on the plan, but a hypothetical fiscal estimate shared with the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee zeroes out jail budgets in Androscoggin, Oxford, Washington, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.

The plan emerged from a 2017 legislative effort to improve communication between the state and counties, but Rep. Martin Grohman, I-Biddeford, a committee member, said the department took a mandated report on jails “a little further than we envisioned.”

He met with LePage about the issue on Monday and said the governor couched it as a starting point for discussion on jails. LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the governor is awaiting the Legislature’s “thoughtful response to the ideas outlined in it.”

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson, a Democrat, said most sheriffs were “shocked that this was actually printed and submitted” to the committee. Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, a Republican, said he doubted that shifting oversight away from counties and back to “another well-intended, but ultimately bureaucratic state entity” would save costs.

Samson said his county has invested a lot in its Auburn jail and the plan doesn’t consider the local costs of transporting inmates longer distances, saying sheriffs’ offices or local police departments may have to expand to handle those duties while also covering regular shifts.

“Are we going to be driving prisoners five hours to take them to jails?” Gardner asked.

BDN staff writer Callie Ferguson contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...