State proposes taking control of jails
Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, has submitted a report to the governor’s office and the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations, proposing taking control of the county jails away from the sheriff’s offices, and giving it to a new state jail authority and three regional authorities – one each for the northern, southern and coastal regions.
The 12-page report was printed and delivered Feb. 5, before sheriffs had a chance to see it, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said in a press release on behalf of the Maine Sheriff’s Association.
The report was mandated by statute in the last legislative session, and was due by Feb. 15, with a goal of addressing costs, inmate capacity and the structure of how jails are funded. A call to Fitzpatrick was not immediately returned.
Right now, jails are mostly funded through local taxes, state funding and, in cases like Two Bridges Regional Jail, from accepting inmates from other jails. Some of the sending jails, such as Oxford, have only marginal capacity. Other sending jails are overcrowded. Each jail pays a certain amount for a number of inmates to be housed at TBRJ, adding substantially to the jail’s revenue stream.
But the rules keep changing for how funds can be raised for the jails. For several years, a law did not permit the county to raise additional taxes for the jails; that was rescinded last year. Then another rule did not permit receiving jails to set per diem costs for inmates. That, too, was repealed. The state wanted to place inmates in jails for $23 per night, barely enough to cover the cost of food, additional manpower, medical care, and uniforms. When the Bureau of Corrections was done away with, that plan also ended. Jails wondered if the rules would change again or if the state would stop providing the small amount it was offering to house convicted prisoners in county jails beyond the statutory, nine-month limit.
For sending jails, especially, the limits to raising funds through taxes meant repairs couldn’t be done, and that often meant shipping inmates to other facilities, further hurting their bottom lines.
A hypothetical revenue sheet for the Fitzpatrick plan shows the budgets stripped for five county jails – Oxford, Androscoggin, Washington, Piscataquis and Franklin – which Fitzpatrick wrote would “realize immediate savings.” However, it is otherwise unclear where the savings would come from, according to Sheriff Todd Brackett.
“There are ways we as counties could be working together to save money,” he said. “We could be working from mutual contracts for things like medical care, for instance. But this plan is extremely vague.”
There are also problems with who and where the inmates are. “Most inmates are being held pretrial, not after conviction, which means that if jails are closed in a state the size of Maine, there would have to be people whose only jobs are driving inmates from county to county for court dates, appointments with counsel, and other issues,” he said.
“And there are many small towns that would lose a place to put inmates because there is only one person on duty. For instance, in Androscoggin County, the only police officer on duty in Mechanic Falls at night already has to drive his prisoner 20 miles each way to get him to the jail in Auburn, which already takes him out of duty for an hour at least. But if they close the Androscoggin Jail, now he has to drive to Portland or Wiscasset or Augusta, and during that time, no one is on duty back in Mechanic Falls. We have geography and small town budgets working against us when we try to regionalize jails this way.”
Still, Brackett maintains the counties are, in some ways, their own worst enemies. “We could have worked together and put together a plan that would have worked. And we still can. I don’t think anything is really going to come of this program, as written, at least not at this point in the legislative cycle, and not in an election year. But we have to do it, or some day, there will be a plan that has enough support to pass, and then we’ll be stuck with trying to implement it. It would be better for all of us if we work out the details ourselves before that day happens.”