March 17, 2018
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LePage leaves jails as he found them – poorly coordinated and funded

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
May 2015 photo of the Penobscot County Jail.

Gov. Paul LePage is absolutely right that there needs to be better coordination of Maine’s corrections system, which consists of state-run prisons and county jails. Unfortunately, the governor and his administration have lurched from plan to plan without consistent goals or strategies for improving the system, or saving money.

The latest example is a Department of Corrections plan, which was written without consultation with county sheriffs, to close five jails and hand control of county jails to a state commission and save $10 million. The LePage administration apparently abandoned the plan this week because it was not well received.

On Tuesday, the state’s sheriffs, who run the county jails, travelled to Augusta to meet with lawmakers and administrative officials. The commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Joseph Fitzpatrick, was a no-show because his plan wasn’t applauded.

“My understanding is that the governor had been informed that this particular piece of legislation was not received in a particular way that led him to believe that it had much chance of success, and so, consequently, he believed that it was not a good use of time for Commissioner Fitzpatrick to attend today,” the governor’s chief of staff, Holly Lusk, told lawmakers.

In other words, because lawmakers and sheriffs didn’t agree with the entirety of the plan as written, it was dropped. A more appropriate response would have been to work with the sheriffs to develop a workable plan to revamp the state’s jails and prisons, and their funding, to better serve inmates and taxpayers. Better yet, the department should have had these discussions before writing its plan.

Refusing to participate in a discussion simply leaves the hard work to lawmakers, and likely, the next administration. This is an abdication of responsibility.

This situation is made worse by the LePage administration’s surprise closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Washington County last month. The unilateral move, with little clarity about the fate of its inmates, frustrated lawmakers and local businesses that relied on workers from the jail.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee was scheduled to meet with Fitzpatrick to talk about the Downeast facility and the troubled Long Creek Youth Development Center. Again, Fitzpatrick didn’t show up.

The concept of a streamlined state corrections system is not a new one. Former Gov. John Baldacci launched an effort to create a unified system in 2008. It was badly flawed and a task force was created five years later to suggest improvements.

“Envisioning the county corrections system as more than a confederacy of temporary alliances but as a planned, coordinated system with a more equitable distribution of the cost burdens would be in the best interest of the people of Maine,” the 2013 task force concluded. That was the right goal when the system was envisioned in 2008, when the task force did its review in 2013, and it remains so now.

A key piece of the consolidation effort was a new board of corrections. The board, however, was plagued from the beginning by a lack of clarity about is authority and priorities. The Legislature, following the recommendations of the 2013 task force, passed legislation in 2014 clarifying the board’s powers and duties, giving it real authority over budgets, staffing and standards. Lawmakers had to override a veto LePage so the board could get this authority.

By the time the law went into effect, LePage had become so frustrated with the board that he refused to appoint members to it. Without a quorum, the board couldn’t meet or take action, so it fell apart.

Three years later, the administration has again proposed a Maine Jail Commission to oversee a consolidated, coordinated system, but abandoned the plan in the face of opposition.

So, LePage will likely leave office with a jail system much as it was when he took office — poorly coordinated and funded — with the intervening eight years marked by missed opportunities and wasted effort.

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