A commission charged with studying the state’s beleaguered jail system is recommending the Legislature adopt a plan that would significantly increase power of the Maine Board of Corrections, with the goal to better manage scarce resources and reduce the reoffense rate of inmates.
But officials from Franklin and Somerset counties are skeptical the Legislature will fully fund the system and that issues with jails in the two counties will be solved.
Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy, who has attended the study commission meetings and several Board of Corrections meetings, said he is not confident that the recommendations will become working legislation.
“I’m not real encouraged that they’ll do the right thing,” he said.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said he received the 68-page report Monday morning and was still reviewing the findings. Dion said he expects the Legislature to seriously consider the report, which will be taken up by the legislative criminal justice committee.
“I will give them credit for doing a lot of work,” Dion said. “I don’t think it’s a report we’re going to put up on the shelf.”
The commission was created by the Legislature in response to a funding crisis that has left state jails short of an estimated $2.8 million, or about 75 percent of the money needed to operate for the rest of the fiscal year. The Legislature can adopt, modify or reject the suggested plan in the upcoming session.
The commission hopes that if a better system is in place, the Legislature would be more inclined to fund it, said Bill Whitten, chief of staff of the board.
“That was the question everybody had: âHow to we know the state is going to pony up when they didn’t before?'” he said.
The state has never fully funded the original legislation that created the unified jail system in 2008. Since then, the system has been hampered by financial problems and personnel cuts, and the state was told this year by a federal jail expert that its jails are running at dangerously low staffing levels.
After reviewing the board and the unified jail system, study commission members found the board of corrections was not given authority or means to achieve the goals of finding efficiencies and reducing the re-offense rate, according to the commission’s final report. In recent years, Maine’s county jails have had an average total inmate population of 1,650 men and women, according to the Board of Corrections.
The commission said major problems with the current system include an unrealistic funding process, time wasted on the board approving a budget, a costly excess of defendants awaiting trial in jail and too many jails flouting the board’s authority.
The commission reported that root causes of the problem included the Legislature not taking ownership of the system it created, a lack of common accounting standards and no way for the board to systematically plan and fund capital expenses.
Under the proposed new system, the board has the ability to make jails adhere to unified financial standards and implement evidence-based programs to reduce the re-offense rate, creating long-term savings.
If a county makes a “major break” from board directives, the Department of Corrections could assume direct control of a jail and the county would be responsible for the cost of the takeover to the state.
Whitten said many of the amendments added by commission members were incentive suggestions for the jails to cooperate with the system. He said those amendments are still be drafted and the specifics would not be available until later this week.
The study commission previously considered recommending a state takeover of the jails or returning more control to the counties, before agreeing on the final recommendation centered around increasing the board’s power.
“This was combing all the ideas and thoughts and putting them into something that was acceptable to the majority of people,” Whitten said.
Officials from Somerset and Franklin counties are taking a wait and see approach.
Somerset County Commissioner Phil Roy, who either attended or listened to broadcasts of all the commissions meetings, said he expects legislators to continue to underfund any new jail legislation and allow the problems to continue. Somerset County in May filed a civil suit against the state Board of Corrections for payment of more than $280,000 the county says it is owed for operations at the Somerset County Jail for the third quarter of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Roy said legislators are under more pressure to fund things like education, rather than the jail system.
“I think virtually nothing is going to change,” he said. “The problem is the Legislature hasn’t lived up to its job. The problem is the board spends 85 percent of the time trying to figure out how to fund these jails.”
Hardy, the Franklin County commissioner, said county officials will have to wait and see if the proposal leads to Franklin County returning its jail to full operation.
“I’m not excited about it,” he said. “I appreciate them trying to do something. I’m just concerned about getting Franklin County back.”
Under the jail consolidation act, Franklin County’s jail was reduced to a 72-hour holding center and it paid boarder fees to other jails for housing its inmates. The board of corrections sent a letter last month to the Legislature recommending it re-open the county’s jail.
Hardy said if the state plans to keep a unified jail system, then they need to give the board more power.
“There’s no doubt that needs to be done,” Hardy said. “If the board is going to work at all, they are going to certainly have to give the board more authority.”
Dion, the Portland legislator, said the commission’s report highlights the variety of problems facing the jail system.
“It’s as much a financial problem as a management problem,” he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 [email protected]