In 2008, the state of Maine consolidated county jail operations under a statewide Board of Corrections. The law stipulated that county spending on jails be capped at the amount approved in 2008; the state, via the Board of Corrections, was to fund any other costs needed to keep the jail system functional.

Although, under this system, a few efficiencies were found, the funding of the jails was never properly considered and no realistic budget planning ever took place. With this system, by the time the jails were allowed to submit yearly budgets, funding had already been allocated without consideration of needs. The jails had to operate with less funding than was required, and many had to utilize capital improvement funds saved prior to 2008 for general operations.

The Board of Corrections system was dismantled in 2015. The complete operation of each jail was given back to the counties. A new law provided legislative funding for the jails as well as the authority to lift the original cap. Sheriffs could request a 3 percent increase in county tax expenditures on jails. This was increased to 4 percent in 2016.

Unfortunately, the partisan infighting during this last session of the 128th Legislature has allowed the session to end without 2019 funding appropriated for the jails. Although the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved $17.2 million for jail funding, it was never voted on by the full legislative body.

If the Legislature and the governor decide not to fund the county jails in 2019, this will create a huge impact on all of the jails and on Maine communities. Fiscally, it means the state will be allowing county tax appropriations for jails to grow by 4 percent, while the state’s lack of funding will cause a 17 percent decrease in resources.

Some of the jails may close, as they will not be able to raise enough funding through property taxes to sustain a complete year, causing law enforcement to spend significant time taking inmates to jails in other counties instead of patrolling their own counties. Larger jails would be unable to take boarders from counties that could not fund them, ultimately shifting that burden onto their taxpayers.

Most jails are already understaffed and would have to eliminate even more staff, causing an unsafe environment. Sheriffs could be faced with the prospect of releasing prisoners early in order to close inmate housing units. Programs implemented to provide education and training to inmates, with the goal of reducing recidivism, would be slashed or eliminated.

It is important to remember that we work with people in jails. We are mandated to supply inmates with safety, health care and a humane environment. Where is the logic behind partisan initiatives that are potentially jeopardizing the safety of Maine citizens?

On Feb. 28, U.S. News & World Report rated Maine the safest state in the U.S., concluding that our rate of violent crime was the nation’s lowest and that we have the fifth-lowest rate of property crime in the country. Also, our state’s handling of overall crimes and corrections was rated the best in the nation. This is a testament to the men and women working in Maine’s law enforcement agencies and county jails. Working with critically low funding, we have learned to make do with what we have. This is also a testament to the quality of life that Mainers expect to be provided by their law enforcement officials and jails.

I think you will agree that jails are a necessity of our society. It is important to remember that jails house human beings, not widgets. We must provide a safe and humane environment to all who pass through our doors. I believe this is what we want as a community and a state. It has earned us the distinction of best in the United States.

Many people who are remanded into our care are suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. This limits how much we can lower our budget and still be able to provide a safe and humane environment – with no funding, which is where we currently stand, this is next to impossible.

It is time for the state of Maine to address funding of the jails much like any other necessity of a community’s infrastructure. By planning and commitment to excellence instead of hoping the jails will just go away, we can lay a foundation and a pathway for this state’s jails that is both humane and affordable.

I ask all of our legislators to please return to Augusta as soon as is practical and address this and the other critical issues that have been left unresolved. We are counting on you!