AUGUSTA, Maine — Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce called his proposed initiative to charge law enforcement agencies $50 a day to house people accused of non-violent misdemeanor crimes a “hail Mary” pass designed to reduce the population at the Portland jail.
Joyce on Wednesday described LD 516 to members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee as an “incentive” for police to issue summonses for low level crimes rather than arresting people and bringing them to the Cumberland County Jail until they can either make bail or appear before a judge.
“Last year, Portland police made 262 arrests for drinking in public” Joyce said. “That’s 140 different people, because some were repeat offenders. Many of them were arrested on a Friday night and stayed through the weekend because they couldn’t make bail.”
Another example the sheriff gave was a woman he described as “a soccer mom” being brought to the jail for driving 31 miles over the speed limit, a Class E crime, when she could have been issued a summons.
“We don’t know what to do to pay for the jails,” Joyce said. “I have done everything I can to cut my budget and I’m down to this one hail Mary pass.”
Joyce’s frustration at the continued underfunding of the state’s county jails was echoed by others Wednesday as lawmakers considered a handful of bills, all less controversial.
The jails are facing a $2.9 million shortfall this year that was not included in the supplemental budget lawmakers passed earlier this month. The Legislature budgeted $15.6 million each of the past three years but reduced that to $12.2 for the current fiscal year.
Eight of the 15 county jails — two counties share a facility — are facing budget deficits and the other seven are not. The jails not facing a deficit are, for the most part, new facilities that can accommodate federal detainees and inmates boarded out from other county jails that are overcrowded. The additional fees they make from taking in those inmates has helped cover their expenses.
Many who spoke Wednesday said the deficits at the other jails are because the state has failed to pay its share of the bill for operating the jail system for nearly a decade.
Aroostook County Commissioner Norman Fournier urged committee members to support LD 463, which would reverse the cap on how much money counties contribute to the cost of running and maintaining their jails. The cap was put in place in 2008 when the jails were consolidated during Gov. John Baldacci’s administration under the Board of Corrections.
That cap was based on the jail population that year, which was 70 inmates in Aroostook County, Fournier said. Currently, the county jail population averages 100 inmates per day, he said.
Two years ago, control of the jails went back to the counties, but the cap was not repealed. The Board of Corrections stopped overseeing the jails in 2014 after Gov. Paul LePage refused to replace board members who had resigned. That left the board incapable of achieving a quorum needed to take action.
LePage has said that whoever controls the jails should fund them, but he included $12.2 million a year for the jails in his proposed biennial budget.
Other bills the committee considered would send people who are on probation and served time at a state prison back to that facility if they are arrested on a probation violation instead of to a county jail.
That bill and others were opposed by Jody Breton, deputy commissioner for the Maine Department of Corrections.
She said that none of the bills was looking at “ the problem as a whole. That really is the elephant in the room because that is what we need to be looking at.
“If you do one thing,” Breton said, “you put a Band-Aid on it for year and then come back to the same issue [next year.]”
A work session on the bills is scheduled for March 29.