Maine’s last attempt to inject cost efficiency into the county jail system failed miserably, leaving the jails understaffed, behind on maintenance and short on the kinds of programs that help inmates stay out of the system upon release.

But a legislative commission is giving the problem another try. The group has winnowed to three the number of scenarios under consideration, each of which includes promising ideas that could be included in the final proposal presented to legislators later this year.

The challenge for the commission will be to bring the best parts together to form a system that will create efficient and effective county jails while appeasing the many constituencies that have a stake in them.

The current unified system, established in 2009, created the Board of Corrections to oversee the county jails. It also capped county expenditures on the jails at 2008 levels, with all subsequent funding to be provided by the state.

But the state hasn’t keep up its side of the budgetary bargain, leading to a shortfall of around $4 million for this year. The Board of Corrections, meanwhile, lacks the authority to mandate the efficiencies necessary to control costs and improve services.

THE THREE ALTERNATIVES

The first scenario under consideration would give the Board of Corrections oversight of state funding and allow it to establish standardized practices across all county jails. The state would determine how much money would go to each county, and the individual counties could decide if they want to spend more.

  The second scenario would create four regions, each with four counties and each controlled by a regional jail authority that would report to the Board of Corrections. The individual authorities would be free to operate their jails within the parameters of statewide policy, and make decisions on where prisoners go and how their facilties are utilized.

  In the third scenario, the state Department of Corrections would take over the county jails, using its existing offices and expertise to allocate resources and provide uniform management throughout the system.

No vote was taken at Friday’s meeting, but commission members seemed to favor the first and second scenarios over the third, and it seems beneficial for the counties to retain some interest in – and control over – their jails.

EFFICIENCY, INNOVATION AMONG GOALS

There are plenty of good ideas in the other two scenarios, though there are potential pitfalls as well. For instance, the regional authorities could allow for the more efficient use of facilities within each region and improve services for special-needs inmates, or they could lead to the kind of squabbling and control issues that have doomed some regional school units.

It is also unclear if the scenario would allow for proper funding, as it seems unsustainable for the state alone to bear the full cost of the jails.

To the same point, the county-based scenario could offer the right incentives for the jails to spend efficiently and to provide innovative programs and services. But if those incentives are not calibrated correctly, each of the 16 counties could continue to go their own way, and little would be gained.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS

Whatever the final formulation, the commission – and then the Legislature – should adhere to a few core objectives.

  First, the new legislation should create a stronger Board of Corrections. It is important that the board control spending, and be able to implement statewide policy that controls the flow of inmates from one jail to another and helps the jails deal with the health issues of inmates in a more efficient manner.

It is also imperative that pretrial services be improved and uniform throughout the state in order to decrease the number of inmates and reduce recidivism.

  Second, the county spending cap should be eliminated, or at least recalibrated to more accurately reflect proper spending levels across the board. A growth rate should be established, as has been suggested, to provide jails with certainty on their funding and show taxpayers that spending is being controlled.

Together, these rules would ensure that funding is distributed fairly, that budget levels are appropriate and that inmates across the state are treated uniformly.