Maine lawmakers appear likely to maintain the state’s share of funding for county jails at existing levels and keep oversight temporarily within the LePage administration, but sheriffs may have to wait for a more permanent solution.

Funding and authority over the state’s county jails are issues that have lost their sense of urgency somewhat since March, when lawmakers approved $2.5 million in emergency funding for jails to help deal with a structural gap.

The budget proposals currently being debated all keep funding at the same level, about $14.5 million, but the bigger fight has been over control.

Gov. Paul LePage and many Republicans want to undo the 2008 jail consolidation law pushed by former Gov. John Baldacci that gave the state oversight of the county jails.

That law also capped the amount that counties could collect from property taxes to pay for jails and mandated that the state make up the difference. Last year, counties paid $62 million out of the total $80 million in operational costs.

Lawmakers passed a bill a year ago that aimed to strengthen the State Board of Corrections – the governing body set up to oversee jails – but LePage hasn’t allowed that to happen. After his veto of that bill was overridden, the governor refused to appoint members to the Board of Corrections, which rendered it powerless and essentially put control of the jails and their funding under the administration.


LePage has said he doesn’t care who runs the jails – the counties or the state – but it shouldn’t be both.

Joel Merry, sheriff of Sagadahoc County and president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said he understands the governor’s concerns but said the status quo is not a long-term solution.

“We’re kind of left hanging and no one is really listening to us,” he said.

The sheriffs’ association had supported a bill this session, L.D. 186, that sought to undo the 2008 jail consolidation law and return control to the counties while still providing some state funding.

That bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said in public testimony that counties had been operating the jails for decades without any problems.

Davis said Friday that an amended version of his bill was voted out of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee last month that would give counties back control, dissolve the Board of Corrections entirely and maintain funding at current levels.


The bill has not come up for a vote in either the House or Senate, but some Democrats are unwilling to give up on the idea of consolidation and have said that going back to the way things were will not fix the problem.

“I think we did a lot of good work in last session to improve the Board of Corrections to get beyond some of the roadblocks and provide it with more authority, but that never happened,” said Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, a member of the Appropriations Committee.

The problem, at its core, is funding and who pays.

Jails are becoming more and more expensive to operate, Merry said, but the counties can’t afford to shoulder all the costs, particularly since some of the increased costs are out of their control.

For instance, he said, jails are often asked to hold so-called “forensic” patients indefinitely while waiting for an evaluation or a spot at Riverview, the state’s psychiatric hospital. Mental illness and substance abuse have been the biggest cost drivers, Merry said.

He said the sheriffs’ association supports Davis’ bill as long as the state continues to provide a share of funding.


Because of the cap established by the 2008 law, when costs increase it’s the state that has to pay more.

If the state stops paying altogether, though, Merry said counties will be forced to raise taxes. The Maine Municipal Association expressed those concerns during testimony at the public hearing on the bill.

“Jails are not a good thing to rally around when it comes to funding because the people we serve are breaking the law,” Merry said. “We can’t compete with education or health care. It’s really tough.”


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