July 18, 2013

Expert: Disrepair, lack of funds putting Maine jails in peril

The U.S. Justice Department official says the crisis is political with the state not keeping its promises.

By CRAIG CROSBY Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – The board organized five years ago to oversee county corrections is facing a funding crisis that soon will compromise safety and security at county jails, a corrections expert says.

click image to enlarge

Kennebec County Corrections Facility officers and staff check a cell block Thursday May 30, 2013 at the jail in Augusta.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Rod Miller of the U.S. Department of Justice spent considerable time studying the state's 15 county jails for a study released last summer. He returned for three weeks this year to provide the corrections board an updated overview.

"The system is broken and possibly about to run over a cliff," Miller said Wednesday.

Compounding the funding deficiency, the state's jails are in disrepair and money set aside for improvements has been spent on operations. The budget crunch has forced administrators to scrap programs aimed at reducing recidivism, leading to greater overcrowding. Miller said the increased population is being guarded by a shrinking number of corrections officers with low morale.

"It's a pretty messed-up system," Miller said.

County jails were run independently until 2009, when then-Gov. John Baldacci created the Board of Corrections, composed primarily of county officials, to oversee a unified system. The hope was that consolidating the jails would produce efficiencies to reduce the overall costs.

The legislation that created the board sought to lower property taxes by capping money raised by counties for corrections at 2008 levels -- $62.3 million. The state promised to make up the difference.

"The state has consistently not done that," Miller said.

He said the state has never provided more than 5 percent total funding, which is about half what the system needs.

State funding comes from two sources: the Community Corrections Act, which provides $5.6 million per year; and the State Board of Corrections Investment Fund, which fell to $6 million in the 2013 fiscal year and is expected to remain flat this year.

"At this point, the board has been stifled in their effort to get sufficient funding," Miller said.

The problem is as much political as financial. The Legislature and government officials have "a general disdain" for county government, Miller said.

County administrators have responded to flat funding and rising costs of food, oil and medical expenses by cutting in the only area they can: positions. Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail, in Wiscasset, and chairman of the Board of Corrections, recently cut five positions, including two security officers. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty also has cut five positions, four of them security officers.

"I'm still $77,000 short," Westrum said. "I just don't know where else to go."

Westrum said several counties went without a full fourth-quarter payment in fiscal year 2013. Cumberland County was owed $565,000, but got only $50,000. The county made up the difference by applying money paid for housing federal inmates toward operations. Piscataquis, Hancock and Penobscot counties did the same thing.

Somerset County, meanwhile, has filed a court complaint against the corrections board for withholding the third-quarter payment. The board withheld the payment because Somerset officials used money from housing federal inmates to pay down debt associated with building the new jail several years ago. Board of Corrections officials believe state statute prohibits counties from using the additional revenue to repay debt.

If every county had demanded a full fourth-quarter payment, the corrections board would have been in a financial hole before it even started the 2014 fiscal year.

"We're starting to see these deficits pile up at the beginning of the fiscal year, and it's pretty damn scary," Westrum said.

Westrum said jails suffering from a shortage of corrections officers will be forced to reduce inmate populations, mostly likely by refusing boarders -- inmates who commit crimes in other counties.

That will create additional population pressure at the other jails.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glen Ross, facing a $450,000 shortfall because of flat funding, considered eliminating 14 positions, Westrum said. Instead, Ross struck a deal with the state to house 12 maximum security inmates at the Maine State Prison. That opened space for Penobscot to accept 12 federal inmates to make up for the $450,000 funding gap. The move could take revenue away from other counties that depend on federal boarders, Westrum said.

The Board of Corrections has asked each county to provide a flat budget to match the flat state funding, but Miller has urged county officials to first provide a budget that reflects the actual cost of doing business. He knows the corrections board will reject those budgets, but it will provide the county legal cover if litigation results from staffing shortages.

"Nothing has been fixed," Miller said. "The only real outcome of this whole system is that things are worse than they were. They weren't broken, but some of them are broken right now. Some of them are about to get real broken."

 

Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

ccrosby@centralmaine.com

 

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