Maine’s county jails will make it through the fiscal year, thanks to a $2.48 million emergency funding measure now working its way through the Legislature. However, lawmakers still must answer how the jails will operate going forward.

The safe money is now on the jails being returned to county control, as proposed in L.D. 186, a bill that would reverse the 2008 jail consolidation law.

That law, for various reasons, hasn’t worked, and the problems it was meant to address still exist: As a whole, the county jails are inefficient and inconsistent. But returning to the status quo of seven years ago won’t work on its own. The solution has to be something more than simply turning back the clock.

Lawmakers thought they had that solution last session, when a bill was passed to give more authority to the Board of Corrections. The board was created as part of the 2008 law to provide oversight of and coordination between the county jails, but it was not given enough power to impose its will.

A bill passed last year — the result of a bipartisan commission that included sheriffs, jail administrators and state and county officials — may have changed that, but Gov. Paul LePage never gave it much of a chance. He has refused to nominate new members to the board, leaving it short of a quorum and rendering it powerless. As a result, the commission’s ideas were never put in place.

With that path to reform blocked, lawmakers now seem ready to end jail consolidation altogether.

The immediate result varies depending on county. Somerset County, for example, stands to benefit, by earning revenue by boarding inmates and prisoners from other correctional facilities at the county’s modern, roomy jail.

Other counties wouldn’t be so lucky. One day earlier this month, the Kennebec County jail was 29 inmates over capacity, with another 30 being housed at the jail in Cumberland County.

The boarding is free to the county under the jail consolidation law, but under the new proposal, it would be an additional cost to the county of around $1.3 million, according to Sheriff Randall Liberty.

That particular problem — when one jail has too many inmates and another has too few — was meant to be addressed by consolidation, so that taxpayers didn’t have to pay for increased capacity in one county while beds in another remained empty.

With the loss of the unified jail system, that coordination likely would be lost as well, as would any assurances that the best programs in areas such as mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and pretrial services will be implemented statewide.

Something needs to replace that coordination. A system of 15 county jails going in 15 directions is wasteful, and, without any real reform, costs have continued to rise.

That something could be incentives connected to state funding that encourage cooperation between counties. It also could be some form of statewide standards for jail services and programs.

But lawmakers cannot just scrap jail consolidation and move on. It may not have worked, but neither did what came before it.

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