When lawmakers abruptly ended the second regular session of the Legislature earlier this month, they left some unfinished business. Among the bills left in limbo or unfunded is one affecting Maine’s county jails, and failure to correct the situation could create some unintended serious consequences.
Like scores of other bills, a measure providing funding for county jails was left unaddressed when lawmakers adjourned. The bill would have provided $3 million to cover budget shortfalls this year and $14.2 million in state aid in the new budget year starting July 1.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, says the failure of the Legislature to act on the needs of the jails could cause some serious problems.
“Some are overcrowded and it could cause them to cut back on staffing and make their jails unsafe,” he says. “Some are looking at potentially closing. Some are looking at early release, so this is a real dire circumstance.”
Eight of the state’s 16 counties are seeking funds to cover shortfalls this year that range from just over $100,000 in Piscataquis County to $800,000 in Oxford County. The counties have been receiving aid from the state for three decades, but a Board of Corrections established under Gov. John Baldacci to oversee the county jails was never funded at levels requested by the county sheriffs, which has led to some counties using reserves to pay for operations.
The Board ceased operations in 2015, when Gov. Paul LePage, who has been critical of county jails’ spending, refused to appoint any members to it.
Joyce says costs continue to rise.
“Last week I got two bills from people, providers basically saying, ‘Sorry but the cost of our services are going up.’ Well, unfortunately, that drives up our budget as well,” he says.
Costs for food and energy are also going up. Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett says that leaves sheriffs with some difficult choices.
Brackett’s county and neighboring Sagadahoc County jointly operate the Two Rivers Jail, where cuts to programs such as drug treatment are on the table.
“I’m going to have to make the tough choice of whether I cut back on our contract with Addiction Resource Center, which is getting to the heart of our opioid crisis, it’s dealing with folks of co-occurring disorders, it’s dealing with substance abuse, which is a majority of the folks we are dealing with,” he says.
Brackett says it’s an effective program that has reduced the recidivism rate at the jail.
Sheriffs say they are talking with their county legislative delegations to impress on them the importance of a special session where lawmakers can address, among other things, the pressing needs of Maine’s county jails.
This story was originally published May 14, 2018 at 4:38 p.m. ET.