Maine has 15 county jails, in places as different as Madison, Portland and Rockland, each with different histories, each operated by different county governments and drawing workers from different labor markets.

But there is one thing they have in common — though some more than others, all jails would benefit from fewer inmates, as would the state as a whole.

The Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee and other stakeholders are now working to find a permanent solution to the decade-old problems surrounding jail funding. Following the group’s first meeting, both the chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, and Randall Liberty, the state corrections commissioner, told the Bangor Daily News that much of the group’s focus should be on reducing the jail population.

They’re right.

The problem is at least 10 years in the making. With jail costs rising, Gov. John Baldacci in 2008 capped the amount of county taxpayer dollars that could be used for funding. The new Board of Corrections was left on the hook for any budget increase.

However, the state never followed through. Costs kept increasing, but counties found it difficult to get additional state money. The next governor, Paul LePage, did not like the way the Board of Corrections was set up — he fought against additional funding, and eventually let the board die through neglect.

LePage toward the end of his second term put forward a halfhearted plan to address jail funding, including closing up to five jails. But he never took them seriously, and neither did anyone else. So jails were left to operate without any way to raise more money.

The Legislature has provided relief here and there, but the structural problem persists. A series of bills aimed at the issue were considered last session, but lawmakers instead opted for a study group overseen by the criminal justice committee. It met for the first time last month.

Now, counties pay about 80 percent of jail costs while the state picks up the rest. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing the formula, but lawmakers will have to decide who pays for budget increases, and who gets to decide when those increases are necessary, in a way that adequately funds jails while preventing overspending. There must be a mechanism that pushes jails to coordinate efforts to install best practices and find efficiencies.

Beyond that, however, the most effective route lawmakers can take is to advance policies that cut the number of jail inmates — and cutting the number of inmates means cutting the number of people held before trial.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of jail inmates have yet to be convicted of the crime in question. The same holds true in Maine, and while the overall jail population has fallen in the last decade, the number of inmates held pretrial has increased.

Why? The system relies too heavily on bail, and when defendants can’t afford it, they are left for days, weeks, even months waiting for adjudication.

Sometimes, too, people are arrested when they could be issued citations, or they are incarcerated for minor probation violations.

Such incarcerations do not increase public safety; in fact, they may do the opposite. People held pretrial are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences, adding to our costs. They are also more likely to recidivate.

Maine should cut back on the use of bail and expand pretrial release, as well as alternative housing and monitoring programs. Law enforcement should be pushed to avoid nuisance arrests.

In addition, more violators, when appropriate, should be pushed toward mental health and addiction treatment rather than jail. Treatment and re-entry programs should be expanded to cut down on recidivism.

A lot of these ideas came forward last legislative session, many of them in a bill that Warren crafted with help from sheriffs. Now is the time for the committee to figure how Maine can use them correctly.

 


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