November 30, 2013

Our View: Return jail stays put pressure on county budgets

The state Board of Corrections should test programs that reduce recidivism.

The corrections system in Maine has to be better at reforming offenders, and it has to accomplish that challenging task at a lower cost to taxpayers.

The state Board of Corrections knows this. Last week, it approved a plan to spend an additional $4.5 million annually on programs meant to keep offenders out of the system upon release, such as the veterans programs and the Criminogenic Addiction and Recovery Academy at the Kennebec County jail.

Under the plan, which will need support from lawmakers, money from the Community Corrections Act that now goes toward general operations would be awarded to county jails in a competitive grant process to fund programs that target recidivism rates. The plan will be phased in over three years, which will give officials time to judge the effectiveness of the programs as well as to figure out how to replace the money being lost for operations.

Last week’s vote shows the board is on the right track. However, previous attempts to bulk up the anti-recidivism programs fell short due to a failure to prioritize the funding. Corrections officials and lawmakers have to give this plan time to work.

Low- and mid-level offenders should be kept out of jail whenever possible – studies and experience show jailing these men and women only increases recidivism and drives up the cost of corrections. For those in jail, treatment should be the focus.

“Jail costs $40,000 a year,” said Randall Liberty, Kennebec County sheriff. “There’s no savings in warehousing them. The savings is in treating them so they don’t come back.”

The board will next have to deal with the Franklin County Jail, which became a 72-hour holding facility under the five-year-old consolidation plan. Liberty is right that inmates can be treated more effectively closer to home.

But if Maine does it right, the number of county inmates statewide should fall, and it will be hard to justify keeping all the facilities open.

The consolidation plan has not worked, but neither did the previous system. A task force working on reform will not only have to create a system that works now, but also one that can adjust to changes in population.

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