August 21, 2013

What shortfall? Board votes to fully fund Maine jails

The corrections board hopes the move forces the Legislature to come up with the necessary money.

By KAITLIN SCHROEDER Morning Sentinel

AUGUSTA – The Maine State Board of Corrections voted Tuesday to fully fund the state's jails for the rest of the fiscal year, even though the board doesn't have enough to pay for even 25 percent of the requests, in hopes of forcing the Legislature to cough up the rest of the promised funding.

click image to enlarge

In this March 2011 file photo, Cumberland County Jail employees conduct a search for contraband. The Maine State Board of Corrections voted Tuesday to fully fund the state's jails for the rest of the fiscal year, even though the board doesn't have enough to pay for even 25 percent of the requests, in hopes of forcing the Legislature to cough up the rest of the promised funding.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

The board voted 7-1, with one member not present, to fund the full amount that officials from each county estimated they need, saying if the jails don't get the money, they will be facing catastrophic shortfalls that put jail employees in danger and cripple the jails' ability to operate by forcing mass layoffs.

The board does not have the exact amount of the requests because not all counties have submitted budget proposals yet.

Chairman Mark Westrum said while he supports the idea of demanding full funding from the Legislature, he cautioned board members that they likely will receive sharp backlash from their representatives for the move.

"We better be prepared for some hot criticism," Westrum said. "I think it's responsible for us to put this back in the hands of the Legislature. ... I just want to make sure the board is prepared to deal with the end result of what might happen."

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said he would rather face retribution from the State House than risk trying to run his jail on a budget that can't fund basic security measures and could lead to injury and a lawsuit.

"I would face the Legislature any day than go to federal court and face being sued," he said.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, who is on the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, was at the board meeting but said he was only in attendance to listen and learn about the problems to prepare for the next legislative session.

Wilson said when the Legislature reconvenes this fall it will only be addressing the issue of bonds, and the request for full jail funding would, by his estimate, not be addressed until possibly April.

Jail officials reported to the board that if they were not fully funded, they would be forced to take drastic measures including laying off corrections officers, closing down cell blocks, issuing summons instead of arresting misdemeanor offenders, refusing to accept more inmates from other jails, ceasing to transport inmates to their court dates and demanding the local police help with their duties.

Officials also said even these solutions were not workable because inmate populations cannot be reduced in a system that is already short on bed space.

The state's 15 county jails were run independently until 2009, when Gov. John Baldacci created the Board of Corrections, composed mostly of county officials, to oversee a unified system. The hope was that consolidating the jails would offer chances to find efficiencies to reduce overall costs.

The state, however, has never fully funded the legislation.

Corrections expert Rod Miller of the U.S. Department of Justice presented research last month saying the state's jails were in crisis and being forced to make decisions that compromise safety and put the public at risk by cutting officer positions -- the only thing left to cut in the increasingly bare-bones budgets.

 

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

kschroeder@mainetoday.com

 

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