County sheriffs and commissioners probably will ask for more money from the state when the Legislature goes back into session in January, but the request could fall on unsympathetic ears.

Jail crowding and budget shortfalls persist, despite a law passed last year aimed at correcting some of the problems.

The law disbanded the Maine Board of Corrections, which was established after the county jail system was consolidated in 2008, and transferred authority for the jails back to the county sheriffs, with oversight from the Maine Department of Corrections.

Under the law, counties are allowed to raise a certain amount of money to fund jail operations, while the state kicks in $12.2 million to fill in the remainder.

But county officials say that amount isn’t enough to cover some jail operations, let alone cover the cost of boarding inmates in other counties, a procedure allowed under the new law.

“What it boils down to is the state’s share of the funding has never been adequate and continues to be inadequate,” said Rosemary Kulow, executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association.


Although there is no precise figure for the amount the jails might need, Kulow said a request could be anywhere from $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

“Unfortunately, the cost of jails is not going down,” Kulow added.

Some legislators, however, might be tiring of repeated requests from the jails for more funding. Early this year, the county jails had to get $2.5 million in emergency funding to keep the system going. In 2014, the system faced a $1.2 million shortfall and budgets were a constant source of anxiety in years leading up to and after consolidation.

“I have heard, personally, from legislators that they didn’t want to hear about county jail issues anymore,” said Joel Merry, Sagadahoc County sheriff and president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. “They wanted it done once and for all.”


Changes in the law have made it more challenging for counties to find empty beds elsewhere for inmates when their own jail is over capacity. The law allows jails that receive inmates from other counties to charge a per-day boarding rate, but only if it hasn’t received full funding from the state. Otherwise, counties can work out separate agreements for inmate housing, without charging a per-day rate.


According to county sheriffs, there isn’t enough state funding to cover boarding fees, leaving some jails, such as those in Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties, too crowded and with nowhere to put their inmates. Meanwhile, Somerset County and others have open beds.

The problem is particularly acute in Penobscot County, Sheriff Troy Morton said. Last week the county jail, in Bangor, was holding 33 inmates more than it is allowed. Sixty other prisoners were being housed outside the jail, and 50 more were out on supervised release.

The crowding has created safety and security issues, Morton said.

“It is like a boiling point in here,” he said.

The jail is facing a $440,000 shortfall this year, and Morton said other counties have stepped in to help house some prisoners, without direct reimbursement.

“I can’t meet with a county like Somerset and talk about reasonable funding for boarding, because there is no money,” Morton said.


However, he has been able to work out deals with some counties in northern Maine to provide housing in exchange for helping with prisoner transportation.

Aside from housing inmates, his budget also is strained because of the resources it takes to house prisoners with mental health problems and other special needs. Appropriate funding would go some way to resolve the problems, but not enough to cover boarding costs, Morton said.

“I feel like we are falling on deaf ears,” Morton said. “This is not overcrowding for us today. This is crisis.”

Kennebec County also is facing crowding and is planning to retrofit areas in the Augusta jail to add space.

Chief Deputy Ryan Reardon said Friday the plan to add bed space would cost a fraction of the $1.6 million he estimates it would cost to board inmates in other counties.

“Right now, that works for our situation, given our numbers,” Reardon said. Until the bed space is ready, his office will continue to limit the number of inmates coming in by working with local police departments to limit arrests and divert prisoners through supervised release and other programs.


“We will do our best to survive the onslaught of incoming arrests,” Reardon said. “That’s all we can do, That’s what we’ve been doing.”


An earlier draft of the deconsolidation law provided $14.6 million in state funding for the jails, but that was cut down to the $12.2 million in an amendment after the bill went to the appropriations committee.

The law allowed counties to increase slightly the amount of property taxes they raised to pay for jails; but by mid-July, when the bill passed and went into effect, most counties already had finalized their budgets, Merry added.

“To think we’ll get through fiscal year 2016 without additional funding is likely not possible,” Merry said.

But Rep. Lori Fowle, a Vassalboro Democrat who is the co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said other legislators are becoming frustrated with the situation, especially after doing what the county sheriffs asked and giving them back authority of the jails.


“Everyone else lives within their budget, but they keep coming back and asking for a supplemental,” Fowle said.

Disbanding the Board of Corrections shook up the system, and she would prefer it if the jails took a year to “digest” the changes before offering new suggestions, Fowle said.

“Theoretically, I agree with her,” Merry said, “but you have to look at it like this: Right now, we are up against some issues with funding.”

Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta who sits on the Legislature’s appropriations committee, said the deconsolidation law passed late last session with the recognition that it was a temporary fix. He predicted that the jails would be a major topic in the criminal justice and appropriations committees in the upcoming session.

“I don’t think anyone left in July thinking this was resolved,” Katz said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.