Shrinking inmate populations is the focus of efforts to fix Maine’s county jail problems

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The Penobscot County Jail, shown last year. The county is looking at building a new facility, at a cost of $65 million to $70 million, to ease overcrowding.
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Multiple attempts to remake Maine’s county jail system in the last 12 years have failed.
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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s county jails frequently find themselves short on money. But when it comes to fixing the state’s seemingly intractable jail funding problem, one of the last things lawmakers, state corrections officials and sheriffs are talking about is simply allocating more of it.

Instead, they say, the key is to reduce — not necessarily budgets and services, but recidivism, the lengths of sentences, and the number of inmates spending time behind bars before trial and the amount of time they spend.

A legislative committee is set to meet Tuesday to begin the arduous discussion of how to fix the county jail funding challenge that has persisted for years. Currently, counties pay about 80 percent of the jails while the state picks up the rest — and when that’s not enough, legislators sometimes have to give jails more cash without any guarantee it will fix the problem long-term.

Whatever lawmakers decide on, it seems unlikely that changing the funding formula or giving the jails more money alone will be the solution: The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee purposefully nixed a handful of bills looking to do just that earlier this year. Measures placing more costs on the state were opposed by Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, and efforts that would have saddled counties with more of the costs drew the opposition of the Maine Municipal Association.

Cumberland County Sheriff and Maine Sheriffs’ Association President Kevin Joyce said the effort won’t succeed without some give-and-take from the state and the counties. But he was doubtful the end solution will make everyone happy.

“I don’t think there are going to be any winners,” he said. “Hopefully there won’t be a lot of losers.”

Multiple attempts to remake Maine’s county jail system in the last 12 years have failed. Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci proposed a state takeover in 2007 that led to the creation of the state Board of Corrections, which was tasked with approving jails’ budgets, setting uniform policies across the state’s 16 counties and approving jail construction projects. As part of the same package of changes, lawmakers capped the costs of the statewide system at $62 million.

But the funding shortages continued.

A bill in 2014 that would have introduced some more uniformity to the county-run jails and gave the governor authority to appoint members to the Board of Corrections ultimately came to nothing. Then-Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, refused to appoint board members, leading to a lack of quorum and ultimately to the board’s dissolution.

Last year, the LePage administration proposed a plan to close five county jails and restructure the rest. That plan dissolved a month later.

The Maine Sheriffs’ Association supported efforts this year that would have required the state to reimburse counties for housing people being held on probation violations for over 6 months or for any costs that exceeded a county’s tax assessment for those services, along with a minute increase to the state’s share of the costs.

Joyce said simply finding cost-saving mechanisms won’t be enough, as each jail has its own needs with “little fat” in its budget.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat who chairs the criminal justice committee, said reducing jail populations will be a key part of the conversation, saying the cost of incarceration is only going to increase. She said the state needs to look specifically at how it deals with people with substance use disorders and mental health issues, as well as what’s behind an increase in the number of incarcerated women.

Warren also said the public should “watch closely” in the next legislative session, which begins in January, for conversations about bail reform and pretrial services. The population of people held in jails prior to any criminal convictions makes up 60 to 80 percent of county jail inmates.

Liberty, the state corrections commissioner, also said he thinks reducing the inmate population is the key. Reducing recidivism rates through increased programming — pointing specifically to service offered by groups including Liberate Now and the Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network — and transitional housing are important to bringing down jail populations, and the costs of running them.

He also said he would support looking at bail reform, saying the practice of requiring bail so an inmate can be released before trial is often discriminatory toward people with lesser means.

But there are also changes to make within the current system, Liberty said, such as more collaboration among jails. He said there are over 500 empty beds in the county jail system, despite overcrowding at some individual facilities, most notably Penobscot County Jail, which is looking to build a new facility expected to cost around $45 million.

“If you’re relying on just funding, you’ll often be disappointed,” he said. “… But you save ten-fold if you address the underlying issues.”

 



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