Now that the five county jails facing large deficits seem likely to get a last-minute infusion of state cash, attention is shifting to how the jails will be funded in future years.

There’s a growing consensus among sheriffs, county officials and many legislators that the 6-year-old unified jail system overseen by an appointed State Board of Corrections is a structure whose time has passed. As a practical matter, the decision by Gov. Paul LePage not to appoint members to the board renders it moot.

There’s strong support for returning control of the jails, and much of the ongoing funding responsibility, to the counties.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said it makes more sense to have the people most affected by a jail’s policies – the taxpayers of that county – decide how much they want to spend on corrections and how they want the jail managed.

“Local folks making informed decisions about the spending on their jails is where it should be at,” Morton said. “If locals want to increase the size of jails or increase or decrease services,” they should decide. “We’re a large state, and geographically it doesn’t make sense to have (a) cookie cutter approach.”

But those same officials advocating a return of the jails to county control caution that the state needs to contribute money to spare counties a huge property tax increase next year.

“If they can set up a system where they provide funding out of the gate then slowly wean it off, … then you know what your fate is and can start managing it,” said Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson. “I just don’t think it’s reasonable to say, ‘Hey, Mr. and Mrs. county taxpayer, we need another $2 million.'”

JAIL BAILOUT

Jail officials have spent the last few weeks anxiously waiting for the Legislature to approve additional jail funding for this year. Statewide, the jail system started the year with a budget already counting on a supplemental appropriation near the end of the fiscal year.

The governor’s refusal to continue funding the current jail system left that money in doubt. Without the supplemental funding, jails warned of sharp cutbacks and severe overcrowding at some facilities.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce threatened to send other counties’ inmates back to them, close one of his pods and a pre-release center and turn loose some two dozen nonviolent, low-risk offenders. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty warned he would be housing more inmates than his jail is designed for with no money to board them elsewhere.

The Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Friday unanimously approved a $2.48 million funding measure designed to bail out the county jails that were running deficits. The temporary measure still needs approval from the full Legislature and LePage, but committee members say the governor’s office helped draft it.

The money appears likely to be doled out based on the anticipated deficits presented to the Legislature back on Jan. 20: Cumberland County, $596,000; Aroostook County $782,000; Penobscot County, $563,000; York County, $396,000; and Androscoggin County, $151,000.

Some counties say their deficits were underestimated then and they may look for a bigger piece now.

“We estimate when we end this fiscal year, we will need $853,000 through the supplemental budget to break even at the end of the year,” said Aroostook County Administrator Douglas Beaulieu.

“We were already at that date at $151,000” in deficit, said Androscoggin Sheriff Samson. “Our projections now show us a little over $300,000,” he added, noting that the State Board of Corrections had rejected a balanced budget proposed by the county because of the ripple effect it would have had on the system.

That could foreshadow debates to come.

As the Legislature starts to consider returning the jails to county control, as proposed in a bill by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, there is likely to be new jousting over how much the state should contribute to lessen the property tax increase and how that contribution should be apportioned between the different county jails.

For the past six years, county jails have received an increased portion of their funding from the state with county taxpayers’ share frozen at 2009 levels. The unified system was designed to take advantage of jails that had excess capacity, such as in Cumberland County, to ease overcrowding in jails like Penobscot and Kennebec counties.

One of the functions of the State Board of Corrections was to determine the most efficient places to house inmates and to direct funding there. Without that structure, some jails will need more money than they have been getting under recent formulas to house their inmates or board them elsewhere.

‘A SOFT LANDING’

For now, county officials want to ensure the state provides funding for a “soft landing” if the counties are to take over paying for any increase in jail costs.

“Hopefully they establish something that is sustainable,” Samson said. “To provide no funding moving forward is setting us up for failure.”

The governor’s two-year budget proposal does call for spending $24.4 million over the next two years on the State Board of Corrections – money that could flow to counties instead. That’s a reduction of 4.69 percent from the current biennium’s spending so far, not including the pending supplemental appropriation.

The end of the unified jail system doesn’t mean counties will stop working together, says Beaulieu, of Aroostook County.

“I think greater efficiencies can be had by counties in the future, working together maybe without legislation,” he said. Already, there are innovations in the works to reduce jail populations.

One legislator has proposed doing away with cash bail so that the only people who would be in jail while awaiting trial would be those who pose a danger to the public or are deemed a flight risk. Some counties are pushing to have police issue more court summonses in place of bringing an arrestee to jail. An initiative underway now in Penobscot County gives some inmates the chance to “earn” money to pay unpaid fines by doing work for nonprofits and thereby not continue being jailed for failing to pay a fine.

“If the citizens want to pay for it, you could jail everybody or jail nobody,” Cumberland County’s Joyce said. “What is the priority?… Every individual that sits in county jail has a $112 (per day) price tag on their head and that’s just a normal day. God forbid there’s some medical expenses or mental health costs.”