Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, is pictured on May 21, 2015.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After years of struggling to fix Maine’s county jail funding problem, a task force is suggesting methods that members say promote accountability and collaboration to reduce and stabilize costs rather than making big changes to a fraught funding system.

The biggest changes proposed in the task force’s report would commit the state’s contribution to jail to law, ending sheriffs’ annual appearances before the Legislature to ask for more money and assign a dollar value to inmates sent to the jails by the state. The underlying idea is that the accountability measures will force conversations around criminal justice reform.

Another measure would allow for periodic adjustment of the jails’ base assessment limit, which a municipal lobbying organization says would be frustrating for cities and towns. It’s unclear how much savings will come out of the recommendations, but task force members say collaboration and recidivism-reducing efforts are a start to reducing jail populations — and thus, cost.

The most substantial change would update how much money the state contributes to the jails and put a price on inmates it sends. Maine law requires the state to spend at least $12 million on the jails annually. But it has been paying about 20 percent of the costs, which came to $91 million in 2018, while the counties pick up the rest. Counties have had a hard time shouldering that cost, and sheriffs have had to ask for more money for years.

The task force proposes solidifying the state’s contribution to $18.4 million or 20 percent of total costs — whichever is higher — for 2020 and 2021. After 2021, the state must pay either 20 percent or $50 per day for inmates they have sent to be housed at the jails.

These “state-sanctioned prisoners” would be inmates who are being held for arrest, prior to indictment or conviction for a felony crime or prior to a mental examination or treatment or if they are alleged to have violated their parole or found by a judge in contempt of court.

Credit: Jessica Clifford | Lincoln County News

Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, a task force member, said about 70 percent of jail inmates meet this definition. Using an average of spring and fall jail populations, that would mean the state could pay around $21 million, according to the Maine Department of Corrections.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, a former Kennebec County sheriff, has opposed any efforts that might shift more costs to the state. But he said the 20 percent figure would provide stability for sheriffs. If the state can find ways to reduce jail populations — something it has studied for 15 years but has run into data limitations — the cost will go down, too, he said.

Reporting requirements and the ability to change how much the jails are assessed for could mean more costs for counties. A provision in the proposed law would require counties to report their revenues and expenses on a monthly basis and to report their populations on a daily basis starting in 2021.

This would help with state data gathering and give a better sense of how much jails are spending, said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the task force and the criminal justice committee. There’s an incentive to report: Another change would make state payments quarterly and dependent on “timely” reporting.

“That would create the accountability we are looking for,” Warren said. 

Liberty said the requirement might be tough for some counties, which he said are “sometimes resource-starved.” But the reporting will also help the Department of Corrections figure out where the resources and space are in the system.

Counties are allowed to exceed their base assessment by 4 percent each year, and that would not change. But another proposal would allow counties to change the base assessment of the jails every four years starting in 2024. It’s unclear what would trigger the assessment jail or what the limits would be — the bill leaves that up to the Department of Corrections to figure out at a later date. 

That’s frustrating to municipalities who ultimately pay the cost of the jails through taxes that fund county government, said Rebecca Graham, a legislative associate for the Maine Municipal Association. She said cities and towns have little say on what goes into their tax bill for the jails, and a survey of 52 municipal officials found 82 percent would oppose the measure.

Cost savings may come if jails share resources and aid prisoners. The bill suggests at least 25 percent of all funding for jails be tied to pretrial release or conditional release programs, and community programming determined by a county corrections coordinating council.

The council would help jails communicate what resources they have and share them, resulting in savings, Brackett said. He said it would be different from the defunct Maine Board of Corrections, which was starved out by former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who refused to nominate board members to fill it and once proposed pulling jail control from counties.

“It’s more of a platform to work together and find efficiencies,” Brackett said. 

Jails would also be directed to provide substance use disorder and mental health treatment, with licensed staff to assist inmates. The hope is that these efforts will reduce recidivism.

“If we’re doing it correctly, we would see a downward trend [in jail populations], not uprising,” Warren said.