WISCASSET — A proposed emergency bill has the support of the top administrator at Two Bridges Regional Jail, who believes it could solve funding problems that have plagued the county jail system for years.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said the draft bill would change how county jails are funded. For the past decade, the state has put in a certain amount of money for the jails, and counties have tried to make that work because there’s a property tax cap on how much money counties can tax for the jail. If the state and property tax funding aren’t enough, counties go back and ask the state to appropriate additional money to fill the shortfall.

“That’s not an efficient way to run anything,” he said.

An Act to Stabilize County Jail Corrections looks at the current costs to operate the jails and past operating budgets to determine what the county tax cap should be for county jails.

Merry said Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, which serves Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties, is in good shape because it takes in inmates from other counties that help pay for operating the jail.

But if the counties who pay to send inmates to Two Bridges can’t afford to do so, that could change. Last fiscal year, Two Bridges lost a $1 million contract with Waldo County to take its inmates.

As a result, the budget dropped from $7.1 million in 2018-19 to $6.1 million in the current fiscal year. James Bailey, the correctional administrator for Two Bridges, had to cut seven positions through attrition.

Penobscot County still sends inmates to Two Bridges but is considering building a new jail. Oxford County also sends inmates to Two Bridges but is exploring reopening its jail as a full-time jail.  Oxford County can only hold prisoners for 72 hours at the jail.

“We do well with our budgeting and our fiscal management but the thing with Two Bridges is we are very dependent on outside (inmates) boarders from other counties, so when you look at it that way we are up against it with the funding issues because these outside counties are up against it,” Bailey said.

“I’m a big supporter of this bill,” said Bailey. “I think it could solve a lot of problems we’re seeing across the state.”

The proposed bill defines a “state-sanctioned” inmate held in county jail as a person sentenced on a felony charge to more than 9 months incarceration is held in the state prison system. However, inmates may get consecutive 9-month sentences and are still being held in county jail on the county dollar. Now the state will kick in money to pay for those prisoners who should be in the state system, Bailey said.

In the past year, Bailey said there was one inmate with three different consecutive terms that kept him at Two Bridges for a year and a half, “and for us, that’s a huge cost.”

The cost of housing an inmate ranges from $150 to $180 a day when factors including staffing, medical services and food are considered, Bailey said.

The bill also calls for state funding of jails quarterly based on current bed counts and requires 25% of the funding go toward programs and services for inmates, many of which help inmates transition out of jail.

The bill was carried over from the first session of the 129th Legislature. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee worked through the fall to rewrite the original draft. The revised bill will be considered in the near future during the short session of the 129th Legislature as an emergency bill that would take effect immediately.

The bill was endorsed unanimously last month by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.



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