The state corrections commissioner says the best way to fix Maine’s broken county jail system is for the state to take it over – a proposal that startled lawmakers and drew a hostile response from county officials.

Commissioner Joseph Ponte said Thursday that he anticipates resistance to the proposal, but that bold action is needed.

“There needs to be a drastic change to the system,” Ponte said. Having the state run corrections would create efficiencies, avoid redundancy and ensure equitable funding for each jail, he said.

“I don’t think the state (prison) system is better than the county system, but I do believe the state system already provides services throughout the state and is well positioned to take over the jail operations immediately,” Ponte said in a letter to the Criminal Justice Committee earlier this week.

Funding for the county jails is allocated by the state Board of Corrections. The board receives money from county property taxes – which were capped at 2009 levels – and state funds, which were meant to cover cost increases. Counties set their own jail budgets, but the board’s allocations to each jail are limited by how much the Legislature makes available.

County jail officials say the state has not provided enough money to pay for minimum staffing. The state has said the amount of money it can spend on corrections is limited.

At the same time, programming, services and conditions at jails vary from county to county. Some jails have empty beds while others face overcrowding. Some are extremely inefficient. The system was described by a U.S. Department of Justice consultant last summer as “broken and possibly about to run over a cliff” with maintenance and capital improvements being neglected and programs cut.

A task force headed by former Central Maine Power chief executive David Flanagan studied the issue last summer and issued an extensive report recommending changes. The group just presented its findings this week, one reason that Ponte’s proposal – delivered in a three-page letter to the committee – caught so many people off guard.

“I thought it was kind of an eleventh-hour insult to what the blue ribbon Board of Corrections task force had been tasked to do last fall,” said Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. He agrees the current system of funding and running 15 county jails is flawed, but said it needs to be “tweaked,” not taken over.

The task force recommendations need to be given a chance to work, Joyce said.

“To fire this shot over the bow and suggest the Board of Corrections is broken – we know that – and that the state could do a better job – I doubt that – he hasn’t even given a chance for this task force to do the recommendations to fix it,” Joyce said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, also criticized the timing of Ponte’s announcement and said it would not help the state and counties reach consensus over what changes to make.

“I just thought his announcement creates anxiety when it’s really important not to, as we restructure the state-county collaboration,” said Dion, a former county sheriff, noting that the committee plans hearings on the report and to introduce legislation stemming from its recommendations.

Dion said the task force’s report and Ponte’s proposal cover similar ground. Both advocate for more centralized authority and accountability, something he could support, he said.

“You can collaborate with stakeholders but eventually there has to be a chief executive that makes the final decisions,” he said.

It was the task force’s report that prompted Ponte’s letter.

He said the 15-member task force was stacked with county officials who did not seriously consider options beyond maintaining the Board of Corrections, even though one of the options it mentioned in its report was a unified system run by the state.

“While the state is faced with an ever-increasing burden of uncontrolled spending over the past four years, one person from the executive branch was a member of the committee,” he said in his letter to Dion and committee co-chair Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

Ponte said the real problem with the current structure is a lack of fiscal restraint. While state government was refusing to increase employee compensation during the recession and resulting budget crisis, counties were giving raises, and personnel is the largest portion of a corrections budget.

Three other New England states – Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont – have unified correctional systems that work well, Ponte said.

The current system in Maine is fractured, with some counties refusing to house inmates from other counties and funding levels that differ from county to county. Ponte says the state is housing 45 county inmates even though there are 60 beds available in county jails.

Joyce said Cumberland County is currently housing 20 state inmates and being paid $27 per day each – less than it costs to incarcerate them.

Cumberland County Commissioner James Cloutier served on the task force. He said having a state-run unified corrections system was studied and rejected. He said the state’s track record in other areas suggests it would not run the jails well. Also, county jails are closely entwined with other aspects of government in some counties and it would be difficult to separate them. Each jail also has different bargaining units and contracts. Unifying them would be a challenge.

Cloutier said the task force did agree that the Board of Corrections needs to have more authority over both budgeting and operations, and that there needs to be more uniformity in county budgeting. These are changes that can be made within the existing structure, he said.

Dennis Welch, president of the Local 110 of the National Correctional Employees Union, which represents corrections officers at Cumberland County Jail, said he favors returning jails entirely to county control, though he thinks that property tax increases that would go with that option would cause too much of a shock to win approval.

“I’m hoping the committee leans toward giving the board (of corrections) more authority,” Welch said. He said state corrections officers are paid less than their counterparts at his jail, and a state takeover would not go over well with his members.

Ponte said he recognizes he faces an uphill battle, and that many counties will be reluctant to surrender such a major portion of their operations.

“I guess my motivation is to keep this open discussion and dialogue happening and hopefully we end up in a good place, ” he said.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]