Returning control of the state’s jails to the counties is the easiest way to end the current debate over the failures of an effort to coordinate the management and funding of these correctional facilities through a partnership with the state.
But if lawmakers turn their backs on years’ worth of work to build a coordinated, more efficient system, they merely will put off problems the consolidation effort was meant to address.
Before the 2008 consolidation plan, jail costs accounted for more than half the county tax assessment in several counties, with jail costs increasing steadily at 9 percent a year. Several counties were preparing to borrow $110 million total to build new facilities or add to existing ones. Several jails chronically were overcrowded, others were underutilized.
Former Gov. John Baldacci proposed a state takeover of county jails as the remedy. That was rejected by lawmakers in favor of the nine-member state Board of Corrections with a mandate to manage the county jails as one system.
The consolidated system was never given a chance to work. There was confusion about the authority of the state Board of Corrections, established to oversee the newly coordinated county jail system. The Legislature, following the recommendations of a 2013 task force that looked at what worked and what didn’t within the system, passed legislation in May — they had to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage — clarifying the board’s powers and duties, giving it real authority over budgets, staffing and standards.
“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 task force said.
But the board didn’t get a chance to put its clarified authority to work. LePage has refused to make appointments to the board. Without the required quorum of members, the board could not meet and do its work. Its executive director quit earlier this year.
It is wrong for the governor and others to say the system failed when it was never given a chance to succeed.
Much of the debate since the consolidation law was passed in 2008 has been about funding and jail management. Rehabilitation of jail inmates has been lost amid the rancor. The consolidated system was supposed to save money — it hasn’t — but also was meant to help the state move to a uniform system of services for those incarcerated in county jails.
With so much focus on money and administrative oversight, needed discussions about who is in jail, how long they should be there or whether they should be there at all continue to be put on hold. A 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center found 16 percent of jail and prison inmates had a serious mental illness. Far too few get needed treatment while they are incarcerated.
A 2010 study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 65 percent of prison and jail inmates were dealing with substance abuse. Only 11 percent received treatment. Joseph Califano, former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and chairman and president of CASA, called the system “inane and inhuman.”
While crime rates are down, incarceration in Maine has increased. The number of offenders held in Maine’s county jails more than doubled from 1993 to 2011, driven by mandatory sentences and an increase in offenders choosing jail time to lessen their fines, which often are a mixture of court fees and financial penalties for breaking the law.
No matter who oversees the jails and pays for them, without significant changes to what happens in the county jails, taxpayers are “still purchasing ineffective treatment,” Rep. Mark Dion, a defense attorney and former Cumberland County sheriff, said. Reforms Maine needs to make won’t happen in a fragmented county jail system with uneven funding, the Portland Democrat worries.
“The promise of consolidation was to build a county jail system,” he said.
Turning management of the jails back over to the counties gives up any hope of a coordinated system, which is a bad deal for taxpayers and inmates.