November 2, 2013

Maine panel to choose from three plans for jail reform

By KAITLIN SCHROEDER Morning Sentinel

AUGUSTA — The commission studying the county jails will choose among three plans to recommend to the Legislature to reform the beleaguered system and address controversial funding shortfalls.

click image to enlarge

In this March 2011 file photo, Cumberland County Jail employees conduct a search for contraband. he commission studying the county jails will choose among three plans to recommend to the Legislature to reform the beleaguered system and address controversial funding shortfalls.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

The competing trio of plans would either consolidate the state’s jails into four regional systems, put all jails under state control or return more of the control to counties.

Panel members will review the plans and expect to recommend one to the Legislature by the first week of December.

The plans were released Friday during a meeting of the Commission to Study the State Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System.

The proposal to create four regional jail systems would aggregate resources for inmates with special needs, expand inmate re-entry services, consolidate functions such as payroll, and save by economy of scale on purchases of items including food and inmate medical services. The proposal also said the bed-space shortage would be managed better by sharing a jail.

Under the plan a regional jail authority would decide which jails to keep open and which to close.

The State Board of Corrections would have the power to direct regional authorities to implement policies.

Some members of the panel said Friday they are concerned that creating regional jails would not work because individual counties would not willingly buy into the consolidation.

Peter Crichton, the Cumberland County administrator and a commission member, said some resistance might come from reluctance to change rather than flaws in the system.

“When something has been done the same way for a long time, there is an excessive loyalty to that way,” Crichton said.

The plan that would return more control to the counties calls for dropping the obligation that the state fund all future expenses above the county tax cap. It would instead remove the tax cap, have the state still fund a portion of budget increases and have the State Board of Corrections regulate the amount that property taxes are allowed to increase.

Under that system, the counties would decide if they wanted to continue to operate holding facilities or return their jails to full operations.

“I think it’s important not to have some authority come down and say, ‘This is what’s best for Franklin County,’ ” said Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci, the panel member who presented the county plan.

The third plan proposes a county jail system controlled by state authority. The state would centralize functions, distribute resources and oversee the jails.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who was not at the meeting Friday, said in a statement to the commission that the current system does not work because of a lack of statewide standardization.

“State oversight provides better quality control and improves public safety,” Ponte wrote. “In contrast, some county jails are well run; others are not.”

He said the board already has the infrastructure in place in the counties to run the jails, so there would be minimal upfront cost to creating the state-controlled system.

“I do not take the position that the state can do a better job than any county, but rather the state can offer a system that is already in place, in corrections, that can answer all of the limitations that presently exist with the Board of Corrections,” he wrote.

David Flanagan, commission chairman, said members should consider during their deliberations whether a solution is fair to taxpayers, reduces the costs of providing corrections, provides funding accountability, is an enforceable solution and provides incentives for desired conduct from jail officials.

Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at:

kschroeder@centralmaine.com

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