Maine’s county jails exist to protect law-abiding citizens from those who choose to violate the law; in doing so, these facilities have earned Maine a consistent spot on every “safest states in the country” list to be found. Responsibly funding jail operations is non-negotiable.

After several weeks of educating members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, a unanimous recommendation was made to the Appropriations Committee to provide supplemental funding for Maine’s jails in the amount of $3.8 million. This figure is the anticipated shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year and has been examined by many parties and confirmed as accurate.

Why do the counties have this shortfall? In 2009, the state froze county tax expenditures for jail budgets at 2008 figures. While the Legislature allowed up to a 3 percent increase in 2016, they didn’t provide a mechanism to make up for the eight years of flat-lined budgets.

What happened during those years? From bath salts to opioids, the overwhelming drug crisis in Maine has left many of our jails grossly overcrowded. With no allowable increases to jail budgets, Maine’s county jail system has been severely impacted. While there are hundreds of empty beds available in the system, it’s important to remember that because of the current funding crisis, many inmate housing pods — or clusters of cells — are closed. Without funding to staff these pods, they’re useless to the system.

This isn’t a commentary about taxes, but while we’re on the topic, it’s important to distinguish between increases in your local school budget and increases in the taxes that municipalities pay toward jail funding.

In Oakland, where I live, for every dollar the average taxpayer gives to the town, 64 cents will be allocated to schools. To compare, 6 cents is allocated to county government, and a fraction of that is allocated to the correctional services for the county.

It varies around the state. In Millinocket, for example, only 2 cents of every taxpayer dollar goes to their county government, and less than 1 cent of every dollar goes to their jail operations.

Maine’s county jails have consistently, and without omission, earned the highest of marks in their annual state audits. With the exception of facilities in dire need of physical improvements, all other facets of jail inspections have been exemplary. We have 14 county jails and one regional jail, housing a combined total of about 1,700 inmates on any given day. Maintaining these stellar results, year after year, is what taxpayers are receiving for their infinitesimally small county jail tax.

What will happen if Maine’s jails do not receive the critical funding in the next fiscal year? The county jail staffing crisis will grow exponentially. Some of the solutions discussed include being unable to take on newly arrested criminals and requiring municipalities to transport them to jails in other counties with open beds.

How would this scenario play out in your city or town? Would local budgets be affected by this added transport of everyone arrested? Would this influence the level of crimes investigated? One can only imagine.

Other suggestions include closing more pods to reduce staff and/or reducing the patrol on the roads. How would this affect the thousands of rural Maine miles that we call home? That there will be a direct impact on the safety of Maine’s citizens is guaranteed.

Funding Maine’s jails doesn’t have the same appeal as funding local schools, so Maine’s sheriffs must work harder to educate those decision-makers under the dome in Augusta. They can’t do it alone. If you value the safety you feel as a Maine citizen, recognize that keeping Maine’s inmates in jail is a priority for you, your family, your children and your community.

Call your state representatives, your state senators and your governor. We must collectively insist that Maine’s jails be funded appropriately and consistently. The risk of doing anything less is unacceptable.

Mary-Anne LaMarre is executive director of the Maine Sheriffs Association and a board member of the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group and the Maine School Board Association. She also serves on the Regional School Unit 18 board and chairs the Mid-Maine Technical Center Advisory Committee.

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