AUGUSTA, Maine — After years of struggling to fix Maine’s county jail funding problem, a task force is suggesting methods that members say promote accountability and collaboration to reduce and stabilize costs rather than making big changes to a fraught funding system.
The biggest changes proposed in the task force’s report would commit the state’s contribution to jail to law, ending sheriffs’ annual appearances before the Legislature to ask for more money and assign a dollar value to inmates sent to the jails by the state. The underlying idea is that the accountability measures will force conversations around criminal justice reform.
Another measure would allow for periodic adjustment of the jails’ base assessment limit, which a municipal lobbying organization says would be frustrating for cities and towns. It’s unclear how much savings will come out of the recommendations, but task force members say collaboration and recidivism-reducing efforts are a start to reducing jail populations — and thus, cost.
The most substantial change would update how much money the state contributes to the jails and put a price on inmates it sends. Maine law requires the state to spend at least $12 million on the jails annually. But it has been paying about 20 percent of the costs, which came to $91 million in 2018, while the counties pick up the rest. Counties have had a hard time shouldering that cost, and sheriffs have had to ask for more money for years.
The task force proposes solidifying the state’s contribution to $18.4 million or 20 percent of total costs — whichever is higher — for 2020 and 2021. After 2021, the state must pay either 20 percent or $50 per day for inmates they have sent to be housed at the jails.
These “state-sanctioned prisoners” would be inmates who are being held for arrest, prior to indictment or conviction for a felony crime or prior to a mental examination or treatment or if they are alleged to have violated their parole or found by a judge in contempt of court.