The first shot at restructuring Maine’s county jail system hasn’t worked. Five years after the creation of the Board of Corrections, the system is facing a budget crisis and is in many ways directionless. It remains for the most part a loose confederation, with each jail largely operating on their own.
But a plan to fix that is now on the desk of Gov. LePage. L.D. 1824, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, would give the Board of Corrections the power it should have had from the beginning, so that the county jails can become a coordinated unit that efficiently and effectively handles inmates.
The bill is not loved by all — LePage administration officials favor a complete state takeover of the jails, while some county officials bemoan the lack of local control in the plan. But it is the best way forward, a bipartisan solution from a blue-ribbon commission including sheriffs, jail administrators and state and county officials. LePage should sign L.D. 1824, so the state can get to work building a jail system that meets its goals.
Those goals were lined up in the 2008 bill that established the Board of Corrections and gave the board the charge to promote efficiency and reduce recidivism. Among other initiatives, spending was to be managed centrally, beds were to be coordinated between facilities, to prevent overcrowding at any one jail, and mental health and pretrial programs were to be made uniform throughout the system.
The board, however, was not given the authority to properly impose those initiatives on the counties. At the same time, the bill capped county taxes going to the jails at 2009 levels, and state funding failed to make up for the resulting gap as costs grew.
As a result, the state was left with a widely inconsistent system. Some jails are overcrowded while others have empty beds, and programs and services vary from facility to facility.
L.D. 1824 would correct that. The 30-point bill authorizes the board to manage county inmates, so that they can be moved easily between jails to ease overcrowding and utilize the right services. It allows the board to enter into contracts on behalf of the jail system, and forces the counties to abide by them, It establishes a uniform accounting and budgeting system for all jails.
Best of all, it allows the board to create performance benchmarks and standards for the jails, and it gives the board the authority to withhold funds or change how a jail operates if the jail does not comply.
That means mental health and substance abuse programs will be held accountable for how well they treat inmates. It means that pretrial services will be held accountable for how well they determine defendant risk, and move the right people toward alternatives to detention.
And that means the best practices and methods being used at one county jail can be adapted to other jails, and that redundancies between jails can be eliminated.
L.D. 1824 also includes $1.2 million in funding to cover the gap in the current fiscal year, and it establishes a growth factor for each jail to provide certainty and cost containment on future budgets. It also creates a system for fairly treating debt incurred to the counties through past jail construction.
But the true advantage of the bill is creating a truly unified county correctional system. It may have taken five years, but it’s not too late.