June 18, 2018
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Funding cuts leave officials skeptical

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The recently formed state Board of Corrections, charged with allocating funding for state prisons and county jails, hopes to receive word soon on the status of $1.5 million set aside in the governor’s supplemental budget.

Some sheriffs and jail administrators in eastern and northern Maine met Tuesday in Bangor with nervous anticipation about how, or if, that money will be dispersed.

They were told by board members that most counties will receive some of the money they requested, but others will receive none. It’s possible, though, that all of the funding could be eliminated.

Underlying that decision is the much more ominous two-year budget unveiled last week by Gov. John Baldacci that asked the Corrections Department to cut 39 jobs. That’s in addition to the 25 cuts that already were proposed under the supplemental budget, most coming from the closure of a dormitory at the Charleston Correctional Facility.

“I get frustrated when looking at funding,” said Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story, who is a member of the Board of Corrections. “Corrections has been the bastard child of public safety funding. No one wants to spend money, but it’s so critical to the social fabric of our state.”

The Board of Corrections was created last year as a compromise to Baldacci’s initial plan that called for the state to assume control of all county jails. The board’s role is to coordinate between the county jails and the state prison system and approve the operational budgets for the jails.

That has some county sheriffs admittedly wary.

“I for one am puzzled about the closure at Charleston while we’re talking about expanding in Washington County,” Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said. “But the big concern is my own budget. At some point, we need to know how we’ll be affected.”

The $1.5 million that has been set aside for Corrections is meant to bring all county budgets on line with the state’s budget. More simply, it would put all counties on the same timeline with the state, since both are now controlled by the Board of Corrections.

Tom Brown, a member of the board, told county sheriffs that, in general, larger jails are slated to get about 90 percent of their requests, while smaller facilities will get less.

“But the biennial budget will look much different,” he cautioned.

While the Department of Corrections will see an increase of $18 million over the next two years, many changes have been proposed. In addition to the reductions as a result of the supplemental budget, the governor has called for:

— Closing a 90-bed housing unit at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

— Closing a 40-bed minimum security facility at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.

— Closing a 94-bed medium security housing unit at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

— Contracting with an out-of-state vendor to house 118 prisoners who are serving longer sentences and have minimal family ties to Maine.

Brown said the real goal for the Board of Corrections, aside from saving money, is to reduce recidivism and thereby reduce the number of people incarcerated.

Already, the counties have been helping to save money through a prisoner transport agreement that Hancock County Sheriff William Clark hopes will go statewide. So far, counties that are adjacent to Penobscot County have been using Bangor as a hub to transport prisoners to other parts of the state.

“It’s still too early to give data on efficiency and cost saving, but what we’re seeing is certainly encouraging,” Clark said.

Story said the transportation project is a great example of working together to improve efficiencies. He said the Board of Corrections would further need to work more closely with the state judiciary and the Department of Health and Human Services on how to reduce the number of prisoners.

But that will be difficult, Story said, with such deep cuts proposed.

“We don’t want to have to cannibalize other areas within corrections but that is what’s happening,” he said.

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