AUGUSTA — The board organized five years ago to oversee county corrections is facing a funding crisis that soon will compromise safety and security as corrections officers are released to meet ever-shrinking budget constraints.

That was the message delivered this week to board members by corrections expert Rod Miller of the U.S. Department of Justice. Miller, who spent considerable time studying the state’s 15 county jails for a study released last summer, returned for three weeks this year to provide the Board of Corrections with an updated overview.

“The system is broken and possibly about to run over a cliff,” Miller said Wednesday. “This is at a point where there is a crisis looming.”

Compounding the funding deficiency, the state’s jails are in disrepair and money set aside for improvements has been swallowed up to maintain operations. The budget crunch has forced administrators to scrap programs aimed at reducing recidivism, which has helped lead to greater overcrowding of inmates. Miller said those inmates more dangerous than before and are being guarded by a dwindling number of corrections officers suffering from increasingly bleak morale.
“It’s a pretty messed-up system,” Miller said. “A jail that is not safe is not doing anybody any good.”

County jails were run independently until 2009, when then-Gov. John Baldacci created the Board of Corrections, composed primarily of county officials, to oversee a unified system. The hope was that consolidating the jails would offer chances to find efficiencies to reduce the overall costs of county corrections.

The legislation that created the board sought to create property tax relief by capping money raised by counties for corrections at 2008 levels, which totals $62.3 million. The state, meanwhile, promised that it would make up the difference to meet the jails’ actual operating costs.

“The state has consistently not done that,” Miller said. “The compromise that’s happened has put the jails and public at high risk.”

He said the state has never provided more than 5 percent total funding, which is about half what the system needs to operate effectively.

State funding comes from two sources: the Community Corrections Act, which provides $5.6 million per year; and the State Board of Corrections Investment Fund, which fell to $6 million in the 2013 fiscal year and is expected to remain flat this year.

“At this point, the board has been stifled in their effort to get sufficient funding,” Miller said.
The problem is as much political as financial. The Legislature and government officials have “a general disdain” for county government, Miller said.

“It’s kind of an orphan,” he said of the Board of Corrections. “It doesn’t have a benefactor, so when it comes time to look for funding, nobody wants to listen. There’s no leverage.”

County administrators have responded to flat funding and escalating costs of commodities, such as food, oil and medical expenses, by cutting in the only area they can: positions. Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail, in Wiscasset, and chairman of the Board of Corrections, recently cut five positions, including two security officers. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty also has cut five positions, including four security officers.

“I’m still $77,000 short,” Westrum said. “I just don’t know where else to go.”

Westrum said several counties went without a full fourth-quarter payment in the recently finished 2013 fiscal year. Cumberland County, for example, was due $565,000, but took only $50,000. The county made up the difference by applying money from housing federal inmates toward operations.

Piscataquis, Hancock and Penobscot counties did the same thing.

Somerset County, meanwhile, has filed a court complaint against the Board of Corrections for withholding the third-quarter payment. The board withheld the payment because Somerset officials used money for federal inmates to pay down debt associated with building the new jail several years ago. Board of Corrections officials believe state statute prohibits counties from using the additional revenue to repay debt.

If every county had demanded a full fourth-quarter payment, the Board of Corrections would have been in a financial hole before it even started the 2014 fiscal year.

“We’re starting to see these deficits pile up at the beginning of the fiscal year, and it’s pretty damn scary,” Westrum said.

Westrum said jails suffering from a shortage of corrections officers will be forced to reduce inmate populations, mostly likely by refusing boarders — inmates who commit crimes in other counties.

That will create additional population pressure at jails that already are struggling with overcrowding.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glen Ross, facing a $450,000 shortfall because of flat funding, considered eliminating 14 positions at that county’s jail, Westrum said. Instead, Ross struck a deal with the state to take 12 maximum security inmates at the Maine State Prison. That opened space for Penobscot to accept 12 federal inmates to make up for the $450,000 funding gap. The move could take revenue away from other counties that depend on federal boarders, Westrum said.

The Board of Corrections has asked each county to provide a flat budget to match the flat funding from the state, but Miller has urged county officials to provide first a budget that reflects the actual cost of doing business. He knows the Board of Corrections will be forced to reject those budgets, but it will provide the county legal cover if there is litigation because of an injury caused by staffing shortages.

“Nothing has been fixed,” Miller said. “The only real outcome of this whole system is that things are worse than they were. They weren’t broken, but some of them are broken right now. Some of them are about to get real broken.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
[email protected]

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