AUGUSTA – The Maine House and Senate gave initial approval Friday to a bill that would give the State Board of Corrections more authority over Maine’s 15 county jails.
The measure requires additional votes, but Friday’s tally of 130-16 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate could pave the way for major reform of the county jail system.
“The Board of Corrections was charged with goals including increased efficiencies and reduced recidivism but didn’t have the tools to accomplish them. This bill provides those tools and other means to improve the consolidated system,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and former sheriff of Cumberland County.
The bill, L.D. 1824, has 30 provisions and is the result of work by a blue-ribbon commission made up of state, county and local officials. Those provisions include:
n creating a more controlled budget process that better anticipates and controls cost increases;
n providing incentives for counties that improve efficiency within their jails;
n defining benchmarks for accountability;
n creating a system-wide capital improvement plan.
“The bill … will allow for the Board of Corrections to be truly successful by granting them the necessary authority to create efficiencies and properly manage Maine’s correctional facilities,” said Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta. “The board will finally be able to focus less on budgets and more on reducing recidivism and other important priorities.”
Former Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte highlighted a number of the same reforms in a letter to lawmakers in February. Ponte said reforms were needed to create efficiencies and avoid redundancy, but he said he didn’t think the county jails were poorly run.
Ponte has since been hired to oversee the jail system for New York City.
Funding for the county jails is allocated by the State Board of Corrections, which was created in 2008 as part of a measure by then-Gov. John Baldacci to consolidate the jail system. The board receives money from county property taxes – which were capped at 2009 levels – and state funds, which were meant to cover cost increases. Counties set their own jail budgets, but the board’s allocations to each jail are limited by how much the Legislature makes available.
County jail officials say the state has not provided enough money to pay for minimum staffing. The state has said the amount of money it can spend on corrections is limited.
At the same time, programming, services and conditions at jails vary from county to county. Some jails have empty beds while others face overcrowding. Some are extremely inefficient. The system was described by a U.S. Department of Justice consultant last summer as “broken and possibly about to run over a cliff,” with maintenance and capital improvements being neglected and programs cut.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he’s willing to turn over some local authority to make sure the state lives up to its responsibility to provide enough funding to county jails.
“By giving up some ability to make some changes locally, I’m hoping they will fund the jails appropriately,” Joyce said.
Joyce said the new law will give the State Board of Corrections the ability to craft new contracts for services. County jail officials could appeal and ask to be able to contract separately for services such as medical care and pre-trial services, but the board would have final say, he said.
Giving the board the final say could provide consistency in the system and also improve services in some jails, Joyce said, although he noted that Cumberland County has the only accredited county jail in the state, so any upgrades are likelier at other facilities.
Joyce said the bill also would reduce the number of Board of Corrections members from nine to five. However, he said the new board will continue to include a sheriff among the members, so sheriffs’ concerns will still be represented.
Lawmakers admitted that the system adopted in 2008 needed to be fixed, but said the new bill will correct some of those deficiencies.
“The transition to the unified jail system hasn’t been easy,” Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said. “But this measure will help us improve the county-state partnership and build on the significant progress that’s already taken place.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.