AUGUSTA — Legislators who will be considering an overhaul of Maine’s broken county jail system toured the crowded Kennebec County jail Wednesday, which is more than two dozen inmates over capacity amid a political crisis.

This session the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will consider a bill introduced by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, that will reverse a 2008 law that placed the system under the State Board of Corrections.

The concept is supported by Republican legislative leaders and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, but concern remains about future state funding of the county jails, and committee leaders said they are waiting to hear from more stakeholders before taking a stance on the bill.

The corrections board has been recently rendered impotent by Gov. Paul LePage, who blocked implementation of a 2014 law that would have strengthened the board by refusing to fill vacancies on it. He has called on legislators to place the system in firm state or county control, saying the current system doesn’t provide for efficient financial management of jails.

Kennebec County officials say their jail is struggling with overcrowding, in part, because of that and a unique crime environment in the Augusta area that includes many people with mental illnesses and gang ties.

On Wednesday, there were 176 inmates in the jail, where capacity is 147. Problems are set to worsen, as Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said 30 inmates boarded in Cumberland County are to return because of a $600,000 shortfall at the Portland jail.


Five legislators on the committee saw inmates sleeping in plastic cots in double-booked cells. They stood inside an empty cell where a grate over a drain functions as a toilet for mentally ill inmates. They talked to inmates in Kennebec County’s specialized programs for veterans and people with substance abuse issues.

“I was scared and ashamed of myself,” said Elizabeth O’Neil, 22, of Waterville, who is in the substance abuse program and is serving a sentence for drug trafficking. “Now I feel like I’m completely motivated to change and to be a better mom to my kids and to be out there instead of just feeling like I’m isolated my whole life.”

But that program, the Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy, which serves inmates statewide, is on the chopping block. The $150,000 program wasn’t funded in the most recent jail budget, and Michael Mitchell, the CEO of Crisis and Counseling Centers, an Augusta nonprofit organization that helps run the program, said he’s concerned that the funding situation has the program “dying a slow death.”

“We are very concerned about the long term, if not the short term, future of this program,” Mitchell told legislators.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty and Robert Devlin, the county administrator, also cautioned legislators about the cost of returning jails to county control.

Now property taxes are capped at 2008 levels to provide $62 million to fund jails, and under the 2008 law the state promised to cover costs above the cap. Today jails cost $82.5 million to run, but the state is funding the system at $80 million, leaving a $2.5 million shortfall for this fiscal year.


Davis’ bill would provide $12 million in state funding to the jails, but Devlin said that wouldn’t cover the cost of paying other counties to board inmates. That’s free now, but before the 2008 law, he said counties that needed to house inmate elsewhere would call counties around the state and send inmates to the jail that would house them cheapest.

“Inmates are a commodity” under that system, Devlin said. “They’re for sale.”

Liberty said he supports the bill’s concept as does the sheriffs’ association, but he said they’re “proceeding cautiously” with that support. Liberty said he wants to see strong state standards for jail programming and ensured long-term state funding for jails.

After the tour, the co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, and Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, weren’t ready to take a stand on the bill, but both said they were affected by the tour and that the system must be changed.

“Whatever we do has to fix the problem,” Fowle said. “What’s happening right now is not working.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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