September 12, 2013

Our View: Jail system study group must home in on reform

A flap over who's on the panel distracts from the many real issues troubling the facilities.

When a state panel convenes this month to discuss possible remedies to the beleaguered county jail system, no one from Somerset County will be seated at the table.

click image to enlarge

State funding has failed to keep up with the rising cost of running Maine’s county jails, forcing staff cutbacks, maintenance delays and overcrowding.

2002 File Photo/Gregory Rec

That the state's second-largest jail -- and the most vocal critics of the 4-year-old unified system -- will not be formally represented has agitated county officials, who say their absence is retribution for a jail-related lawsuit they have filed against the state.

But the county's argument evades its own fault in the matter, and takes the focus away from what should be the overarching aim of everyone concerned with county jails -- the creation of an improved, properly funded system that is not too reliant on property taxes.

CONFLICT WITH SOMERSET COUNTY

The 13-member jail system study commission, which will meet up to six times between now and December before reporting back to lawmakers, includes two legislators, three county administrators, three county commissioners, two jail administrators and two sheriffs.

Legislative leadership chose the county representatives from names submitted by the associations that represent them.

Somerset County Commissioner Lynda Quinn was nominated, through an email by state Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, to Senate President Justin Alfond on July 31, after the deadline set by the Legislature.

Commissioner Robin Frost, with his colleagues' blessing, submitted his own name for consideration to the Maine County Commissioners Association. Col. Mark Westrum, chairman of the Board of Corrections, said the commissoners organization didn't select Frost -- perhaps because he did not submit his name to the right person -- so he was never considered for the panel.

In any case, the commission is set, and it faces a significant task.

When the state's 15 county jails were unified into a single system, a cap was placed on the property taxes used to fund the jails, with the state poised to pick up any subsequent cost increases. However, state funding has failed to keep up with rising costs, creating a dire budget crunch.

PERVASIVE FUNDING PROBLEMS

In May, the state owed the county jails a total of $2.4 million for the remainder of the fiscal year. Androscoggin County Jail was saved from closure only by a last-minute payment. In August, the Board of Corrections voted to fully fund the jail system even though the board doesn't have the money, in hopes of forcing the Legislature to provide the funding. Franklin County Jail, made a 72-hour holding facility under the unified system, is seeking a return to its prior status, which would pull more money from the state system.

The funding problems have forced delays in facility maintainance, staff cutbacks and overcrowding.

In July, Rod Miller of the U.S. Department of Justice presented the state Board of Corrections with a report detailing problems throughout the system, and most were related to a lack of funding: lower staffing levels, aging facilities, not enough beds, a lack of programs.

"Since 2009, overall jail conditions, safety, security, and effectiveness have declined," Miller wrote in the report.

ADVOCACY, COLLABORATION NEEDED

Miller said the Board of Corrections should become a stronger advocate for jail funding. He is right -- the board should present a unified voice for the system, as the alternative now is for each of the counties to make their own case, creating an adversarial environment.

In addition, the cap on property taxes should remain in place. Mainers don't need any more pressure added to their local tax commitment.

As for the conflict with Somerset County, perhaps legislative leadership could have been more flexible in the name of having a more representative panel. But county officials could have made additional nominations, or at least made both of theirs on time and in the correct manner.

Somerset County can make sure its opinion is heard by sending representatives to the panel's public meetings, and by speaking with commission members directly.

There is a lot of work to be done, and the commission needs all the help it can get.

 

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