AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee were asked Friday to repeal or substantially change the legislation it endorsed two years ago that consolidated county jails around the state and relieved overcrowding in Maine’s prisons.
The consolidation effort approved by the Legislature — sold as a way to reduce costs and ensure that tax rates would not increase — hasn’t done what it was intended to do, those supporting repeal of the law and changes to it told committee members.
Under the law, counties pay a capped amount for the operation of their jails and any overages incurred are to be paid by the state, but jail and county officials said Friday the state can’t afford to fully fund the operation.
LD 1178 would repeal the law and turn control of the jails back to the counties. LD 1419 would replace the word “unifed” with “coordinated,” change the budget cycle from one year to two years so it is in line with the state budget cycle, and replace two of the four public members on the Board of Corrections with county officials so that four of the nine members were involved in county government.
The Maine County Commissioners Association and the Maine Sheriffs Association have voted to support LD 1419, sponsored by Rep. Gary Plummer, R- Windham, who was on the committee when the original bill was considered and is now its House chairman.
“It’s difficult for me to admit that the bill we put together a few years ago wasn’t perfect, but we did the best we could, and some things have changed,” he said.
Bob Howe, who represents the MCCA, said that because the missions of county jails and prisons are different, the corrections system should not be unified. He pointed out, however, that much is to be gained by coordinated efforts.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who supported the bill Friday, has pointed previously to a coordinated effort by county jails in northern and Down East Maine for the transportation of inmates from jails to prisons in Warren and Windham. A coordinated system does allow jails the opportunity for savings by joining together in bulk purchases and seeking contracts for medical services, he said.
Larry Post, Somerset County administrator, urged the committee to repeal the law.
“The current ‘One Maine, One System’ is only a slogan,” he said. “Counties are held to a standard of accountability and oversight that the state is not.”
Post said LD 1419 would not solve the fundamental problems in the current law. Problems he cited included:
• County budgets being micromanaged by the board.
• The mixing of jail and prison inmates, whose crimes often vary considerably, causing problems and tensions.
• Counties having to absorb the medical or dental costs incurred by inmates in their facilities within their budgets.
• Considerable time being lost by county employees who must attend the frequent BOC and working group meetings.
The committee is scheduled to a hold a work session on the bills Thursday.