Gov. Paul LePage’s office and legislative leaders are cooperating to re-examine the state’s network of county jails.
For several weeks — since LePage met April 30 with every Maine sheriff on the matter — legislators and the governor’s staff have been meeting to discuss the mission of the new group.
The group will be charged with making recommendations to restructure the system that confines Mainers in 15 county jails.
“We’re all working together,” said LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. “The Legislature’s going to pull together paperwork and we’ll move forward as soon as we can on this.”
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, agreed. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also have been active in the task force’s formation, Dion said
Consensus among lawmakers and the governor will lend credibility to the task force when it comes to making recommendations for changes in the jail system, said Dion, who chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
“It will all help on the back end,” Dion said.
Help for Maine’s jail system is needed.
Though an immediate budget crisis was averted earlier this month — rescuing several jails, including the Androscoggin County Jail, with hundreds of thousand of dollars in promised money — more challenges are looming.
Somerset County has asked the courts to examine the state Board of Corrections’ decision to withhold $280,000 in third-quarter funding to the county. Franklin County is moving forward on its plan to reinstate its 72-hour holding facility as a full-fledged jail, pulling money out of the state system. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 12 at the University of Maine at Farmington.
And, sheriffs across Maine are submitting two-year budgets that surpass a flat-funding directive from the LePage administration.
Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum, a likely nominee to the task force, said Friday that he hopes the new group will form quickly and get to work.
“I’m anxious,” he said. “I’ll use my tiny bit of influence as board chair to move the process along.”
The worry is that politics and funding could slow the work of the appointees, much as it has the Board of Corrections.
“Time just flies,” Westrum said. “We spin our wheels and get mired in muck and don’t get much accomplished.”
Many believe the Board of Corrections needs structural changes, perhaps to expand its authority. It may not continue at all, though.
The task force is likely to follow the three options outlined by LePage on April 30: Fix the current system, send it back to county control with added property tax funding or give the state total control.
“There’s a sense that going back to the property tax isn’t the best idea, but there are some sheriffs really pushing for that,” Westrum said. “There’s another sense that the board doesn’t have enough authority, so it really spins its wheels trying to figure out who to fund with its limited resources.”
If the current system is chosen, Westrum said he would suggest giving the Board of Corrections line-item authority that would exercise much more control over each jail’s budget.
The new group could be formed by an act of the Legislature or more informally by a consensus of leaders.
Dion, the former Cumberland County Sheriff, prefers the former.
“I think the more formal the body, the greater status their recommendations will have,” he said.