Sheriffs and lawmakers worry about veto of county jail fix

Posted April 03, 2014, at 8:15 a.m.
Rep. Mark Dion
Rep. Mark Dion

AUGUSTA, Maine — The creators of a bill meant to restructure Maine’s system of county jails — which is days from a vote in the Maine Legislature — say they’re worried the bill might fail on the governor’s desk.

“I do worry about a veto,” Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said.

Too much work has gone into crafting a 19-page bill that has earned bipartisan support for strengthening the jail system’s governance. It also has created new protections meant to keep budgets from inflating and it includes $1.2 million in gap funding to help the state’s 15 jails get through the current fiscal year, said Dion, who co-sponsored the bill.

However, the LePage administration issued a statement March 21 that seemed to call for scrapping the jail system in favor of either releasing the jails to county control or a state takeover.

“The administration believes at this time that the only viable options include a return of control of the jails to the counties or a grant of authority over the jails to the Department of Corrections,” read the statement by Hank Fenton, deputy counsel to LePage. The statement called for more changes to the bill, particularly with regard to decision-making authority.

“Without that vital element, any bill that seeks to address the problems that plague the jail system will be inadequate,” Fenton said.

The statement came as Dion’s 13-member committee held a public hearing on the bill.

Passage and signing of the bill would be the final steps in a nearly yearlong process since LePage met with the state’s sheriffs in April 2013. This past fall, a blue-ribbon commission met to discuss changes and reported to the Criminal Justice Committee in January.

The committee has been refining a bill ever since.

On Jan. 11, former Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte called for a state takeover of the jail system. Nine days later, LePage wrote to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee saying he wasn’t yet backing any particular fix of the system. Rather, he was calling on lawmakers to give the jails the money they need to operate.

The newest statement left many sheriffs “dumbfounded,” Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said. “I thought we had his full support. Then, this letter comes out.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said he, too, was worried about a veto. However, he is hopeful that the governor will find what he needs in the new legislation.

“I think we did the best we could,” Liberty said Wednesday.

The bill would shrink the current nine-member Board of Corrections to five members: a county official, a sheriff, a citizen and two people from the Department of Corrections.

The smaller board would set a growth factor limiting increases in each county budget aimed at preventing personnel costs from climbing too quickly. The committee, through its chairperson, also would have the authority to direct inmates to any jail in Maine.

Counties would be banned from opting out of the system. However, those that have room to board federal inmates would be able to share in the revenue.

On Monday, members of the committee finished voting on the bill. Of its 13 members, 11 voted in favor. Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, favored much of the bill, but he wished to reopen a tax cap that currently limits spending on jails by the counties. Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, planned to issue a minority report.

Dion said he was worried about what a veto of the bill might mean for jails across the state that are waiting on gap funding to get through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“I worry about a veto that will have no other consequence than to throw 15 county facilities into true crisis mode,” Dion said. “I worry if a veto disrespects the bipartisan work that’s been done.”

 

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