AUGUSTA — Lawmakers have formed a commission tasked with saving the state’s unified county jail system.

The Legislature’s Commission to Study the State Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System will recommend ways to strengthen the system, particularly aimed at finding long-term funding solutions. The 15-member commission, which includes just two legislators, is set to meet six times between now and early December.

“Our county jail system has been plagued by funding and resource challenges that must be addressed,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in news release.

Citing a critical funding shortfall that would lead to mass layoffs and threaten corrections officers’ safety, the Board of Corrections last week voted overwhelmingly to send lawmakers a budget that would fund the state’s jails fully for the rest of the year, even though it has only a quarter of the money necessary to cover the request.

The state’s 15 county jails were run independently until 2009, when 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; but the state has never funded the legislation fully.

Corrections expert Rod Miller, of the U.S. Department of Justice, presented research to the board last month saying the state’s jails were in crisis and being forced to make decisions that compromise safety and put the public at risk by cutting officer positions — the only thing left to cut in the increasingly bare-bones budgets.

His report said the state’s jails are also 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. Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and chairman of the Board of Corrections, and other board members repeatedly have expressed frustration that they waste their time looking for money when one of the original reasons for forming the board was to promote programs to reduce the repeat-offender rate.

The jail commission members include legislators Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor and Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop; county administrators Bob Devlin (Kennebec), Peter Crichton (Cumberland) and Greg Zinser (York); county commissioners Lawrence Dawson (Sagadahoc), Peter Baldacci (Penobscot) and James Cloutier (Cumberland); jail administrators Capts. John Lebel (Androscoggin) and Marsha Alexander (Kennebec); and Sheriffs Maurice Ouellette (York) and Joel Merry (Sagadahoc).

Former Central Maine Power Co. executive David Flanagan, who was general counsel for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee investigation of the response to Hurricane Katrina, will be the commission’s chairman. Commissioner of Public Safety John Morris, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, and Westrum have been invited to participate in the meetings.

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