AUGUSTA — The board that oversees the county jail system has voted to devote nearly half the money it gets from the state to programs developed to help keep people from going back to jail.

The Maine State Board of Corrections last week voted unanimously to devote $5.6 million to programs such as the veterans program and the Criminogenic Addiction and Recovery Academy at the Kennebec County jail that are geared toward addressing the underlying issues behind the inmates’ crimes. The money will be doled out through grants that jails will earn through competitive bids by implementing programs that have proven successful at reducing recidivism, said Board of Corrections Chairman Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

“We’re hopefully making people better than they were so when they’re back out in the communities, they’re not committing new crimes,” Westrum said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

State funding for county corrections comes from two sources: the State Board of Corrections Investment Fund, which provided about $6 million in the 2013 fiscal year; and the Community Corrections Act, which provides $5.6 million per year.

The Board of Corrections now funnels about 20 percent of the Community Corrections Act money to the program. The remaining 80 percent is used for general operations.

However, when legislators consolidated the county jail system and created the board of corrections in 2009, it gave the board a mandate to reduce recidivism. Since then, board members say, the state has failed to live up to its funding promises and the board has diverted money away from programs to maintain general operations. The move to devote all the community corrections funding to programs is meant to reverse that trend and is a recognition that counties already are exceeding the 20 percent cap in programs, Westrum said. The change will be phased in over three years.

“What we’re trying to say is if we’re ever going to get to some of the key issues that the board is supposed to oversee, that $5.6 million should be on a competitive grant basis,” Westrum said.

The board members are still unsure how they will replace the roughly $4.5 million in community corrections act money that is being used to fund operations. Ideally, Westrum said, the new programs will reduce the in-house jail populations enough over the next three years that there will be no funding deficit.

“That’s my optimistic view,” Westrum said.

Realistically, however, state lawmakers will have tremendous sway over how the plan works. He hopes that the state will begin over the next three years to keep its promise to fund jail operations adequately. 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 said it would make up the difference to meet the jails’ actual operating costs. A study conducted by Rod Miller, of the U.S. Department of Justice, found the state has never provided more than 5 percent of total funding, which is about half what the system needs to operate effectively.

“The compromise that’s happened has put the jails and public at high risk,” Miller said last summer.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said the three-year phase-in will allow the Board of Corrections to figure out funding, give county jails time to develop programs, and allow for time to study whether those programs are working.

“It’s important to spend that money wisely,” Liberty said. “We really need to have purpose-driven incarceration. Jail costs $40,000 a year. There’s no savings in warehousing them. The savings is in treating them so they don’t come back.”

Liberty said part of the effort to reduce recidivism should include re-opening the Franklin County Jail as a full-service facility. The jail was converted into a 72-hour holding center as part of the consolidation effort.

Franklin County commissioners voted last month to withhold the county’s November payment to the Board of Corrections and to negotiate a contract to resume sending prisoners to Somerset County if the state jail financial crisis worsens.

The Board of Corrections on Tuesday agreed to send a letter to legislators supporting the idea of re-opening the Franklin County Jail as a full-service facility. Inmates can be treated more effectively when they are incarcerated near their homes and can transition easily into school, counseling programs and work, Liberty said.

“It’s my wish that Franklin County reopens,” Liberty said.

That will be a difficult task unless the state begins to fund the jail system at promised levels, Westrum acknowledged.

“The board would have voted to re-open Franklin County if it had sufficient funding,” he said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected]

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