Bill to Hike Board Oversight of Maine's County Jails Advances

Apr 14, 2014

Maine jails could soon have a new boss, of sorts.  A bill that's received initial approval in the Legislature would give greater authority to the Board of Corrections to track and approve funding and management decisions at Maine's 15 county jails.  Some see it as a possible solution to problems that arose after the county jails were consolidated in 2008.  Not all county officials are happy with the so-called compromise.

Five years ago, Maine lawmakers attempted to make county jails more efficient and reduce recidivism.  They passed a bill that created the Board of Corrections to oversee the  jails, but the BOC didn't have much authority. And that created problems, says Androscoggin County Sheriff Barry Desjardins.

"By giving the Board of Corrections a little more authority, I am in hopes it's going to speed up the budget process," Desjardins says. "It's not going to be a process that - historically, it has taken 14 months to put together a 12-month budget."

There have been other problems under the consolidated system. Some jails have been transformed into temporary holding facilities that ultimately send inmates to more cost-effective, regional jails.  But Desjardins says one of those regional jails - Somerset County - has periodically refused to take inmates from other counties because of funding disputes with the state.

"That was really devastating to the entire system," he says. "The Board of Corrections now will be able to say, 'No.  Sheriff, these inmates are coming to your facility.' "

The bill helps quell some of those funding concerns by allowing Somerset to keep more of the revenue it generates from housing federal inmates. The bill also more clearly defines the Board of Correction's oversight of the jails.  It gives the BOC the power to approve each jail's budget, dictate staffing ratios, and monitor overall jail performance.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty says Maine's jail system isn't perfect, but this bill helps get it in order. "We're also trying to increase efficiencies with purchasing and that sort of thing, and reduce costs as a result," Liberty says. "So we're cautiously optimistic that we're proceeding in the right direction."

"I think it's a mess.  We didn't have any choice with the bill -  we were given two choices, and they were both a lose-lose situation for us," says Dawn DiBlasi, the Somerset County administrator.  She says the only reason the bill is getting support is because county officials fear they will lose state funding if they don't go along.  But that support, she says, comes at a price.  

"If we did support the bill, then we just voted for them to have, basically, an administrative takeover," DiBlasi says, "because they've transferred the sheriff's power to the BOC - mind you, a state agency that hasn't worked properly since its inception, mostly because it hasn't been funded."

DiBlasi says the creation of the Board of Corrections has created more problems than it's solved.  Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols says the state has continually fallen short on its funding obligations to jails since the inception of the BOC, and he points out this bill comes with a $1.2 million price tag.

"What's to say next year there's not going to be another crisis somewhere, another fiscal crisis, and they need more money from the Legislature, and they're going to go back to Appriopriations again for another $1.2 million," Nichols says. "You know, I don't see this not occurring.  I see it probably happening again."

Nichols and DiBlasi say local control is a better alternative, a way for counties to answer to their local taxpayers. Officials often have realtionships with local vendors and can negotiate better deals.  

While the president of the Maine County Commissioners Association, Bill Blodget, agrees that counties should retain control, he doesn't see this bill as a state takeover.  He says it's a compromise, trading authority for assurances of state funding.  
 
.{HEADLINE:Maine jails could soon have a new boss, of sorts.  A bill that's received initial approval in the Legislature would give greater authority to the Board of Corrections to track and approve funding and management decisions at Maine's 15 county jails.  Some see it as a possible solution to problems that arose after the county jails were consolidated in 2008.  But as Patty Wight reports, not all county officials are happy with the so-called compromise.}
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.{KEYWORDLINE:county jails, Maine Board of Corrections, Maine County Commissioners Association}
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