AUGUSTA — Even as a jail inmate intervention program based in Kennebec County garnered widespread applause Thursday from state corrections officials, a large budget shortfall remains a stumbling block to the popular program’s survival.

Roughly two dozen Kennebec County administrators and counseling specialists urged the Maine Board of Corrections working group to find $338,000 in the 2012-13 fiscal year budget to fund the Criminogenic Addiction & Recovery Academy at the Kennebec County jail.

The Board of Corrections, facing a $800,000 shortfall, has asked every department within the corrections system to cut spending by 1 percent to close the gap.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said this week that meeting the 1 percent mandate will actually require cuts closer to 5 percent because of uncontrollable increases in areas such as heating fuel and insurance.

Members of the corrections working group, which will gather information on county and state corrections programs before reporting back to the full board, signaled their support for the academy program even if funding it poses a challenge.

“Sometimes you have to spend a little money to save a little money,” said Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum, administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. “It’s an awesome program. It’s one of the best things going on in the state of Maine.”

The program, known as CARA, was launched in 2010 to treat inmates’ substance abuse while reprogramming criminal thinking that leads to illegal activity. More than 150 men and women have gone through the more than five-week program that some graduates have described as a “life-changing” experience. The program has thus far accepted inmates from 10 different counties in Maine, though it is open to inmates from across the state.

“We’ve had inmates stay in jail longer than they had to so they could complete the program,” Liberty said. “This is the most important and successful program I’ve ever been involved with. It has real impact.”

Capt. Marsha Alexander, administrator of the Kennebec County jail, provided board members an overview of the program and explained funding requirements. Of the $338,000 required from the state, all but about $40,000 will be funneled into drug treatment and salaries for corrections officers. Kennebec County absorbs about $250,000 to keep the program afloat, Alexander said. Part of that funding came by reducing two staff members through attrition.

Kennebec County commissioners agreed at their regular meeting on Tuesday to apply for federal Department of Justice Grant that would provide $600,000 over two years to support programs that help inmates, including those leaving CARA, as they re-enter society.

Board member John O’Connell, administrator for Lincoln County, said he was pleased with the results CARA has gotten but said there were legitimate concerns about funding.

“I’d like to see it come from some other source,” he said.

But Alexander argued that CARA specifically meets the board’s mandate of reducing recidivism by helping inmates break free from their addictions and criminal thinking. Pulling funding might provide short-term budget relief, but it will cost more in the long run, Alexander said.

“You continue with the way you’re doing things and we’re going to be sitting here in the next five years saying the same things,” she said. “We have to change people. We just keep doing the cycle. We have to change the cycle and I believe this program does just that. It’s up to you guys to make that change.”

O’Connell reminded Alexander that there were other programs within the department of corrections aimed at reducing recidivism that have proven successful.

“Nothing is this successful,” Alexander retorted.

Board member Scott Ferguson, director of Corrections Service Center for the Department of Corrections, said he appreciated CARA’s commitment to getting inmates’ families involved in the treatment process. He referenced graduates who said the program likely saved their lives.

“When do you put a cost on a life you may have saved?” Ferguson said. “I think it’s providing some positive results.”

Jarad Platt, substance abuse and treatment specialist for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Substance Abuse, said if CARA graduates relapse into drug abuse, which he said is not unusual even with successful treatment, the program lays a foundation that makes it possible to quickly restore the graduates to society without a return to jail.

“If we can reduce recidivism it becomes very much a money saver,” he said. “So not only does it save a human life.”

Board member David Allen, a jail administrator for Somerset County, suggested counties that have reserve money from their inmate benefit accounts should help fund the CARA program. The funds, which are collected by surcharges on certain items, like purchases from jail commissaries or collect phone calls, are typically used to provide privileges like cable television and cell block newspapers.

Channeling money from the benefit accounts would put some of the burden on inmates while cutting the need for public funds, Allen said.

“I think the public would like to see the inmates paying for their own programs,” Allen said.

Liberty told Kennebec County commissioners Tuesday that closing the $800,000 budget may end up pitting sheriffs looking to cut spending by reducing programs such as pre-trial services against state officials who will try to force such programs to continue.

In the middle of that, Liberty said he intends to fight to keep CARA operating as a statewide resource. It’s a process he expects that will lead to “spirited debate.”

Kennebec County Commissioner George Jabar, formerly a member of the board of corrections, added his voice to those backing Liberty’s effort.

“If that program isn’t in the whole spirit of what the board of corrections is, I don’t know what is,” Jabar said. “It’s what the whole system is about.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

ccrosby@centralmaine.com