With no advance notice to county sheriffs and few details, the Maine Department of Corrections has announced a plan to overhaul the state’s county jail system, close five jails and create a new oversight commission to manage them.
The proposal was contained in a report released on Friday and mandated in the budget approved last July.
The department is recommending a two-tiered system of oversight for the jails. The first tier would be a newly created Maine Jail Commission with control over all of the jails statewide. In addition, the plan proposes the creation of three regional jail authorities, and it claims to save millions of dollars by eliminating five existing county jails.
“I think that there is a savings opportunity in better communication, better cooperation between the Department of Corrections and our county jail system,” says state Rep. Marty Grohman, an independent from Biddeford and a member of Criminal Justice Committee.
Grohman says it’s a plan worth considering, and that he’s talked with the governor about it.
“There is a real problem that the Department of Corrections and the governor are trying to take on with this report, which is that they feel as though they are sending checks off into the ether. They don’t have a result. We are paying a bill and we don’t know what we paid for,” he says.
The proposal was sent to the committee last week, but not to the county sheriffs.
Cumberland County Kevin Joyce, the president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, says it’s still not clear how the plan would achieve the millions in savings it says would result by closing the jails in Androscoggin, Oxford, Washington, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.
“You know the voodoo math, we could save money, we couldn’t save money. That plan really does not suggest where that savings is, it just suggests if you do ‘X,’ ‘Y’ will happen,” he says.
Joyce says inmates will have to be housed somewhere, and that has a cost. He says the report fails to address what he sees as the biggest problem facing the system: that 60 percent of the inmates are waiting for their trial.
“We have implemented as many things as we possibly can to save money. You know, it costs money to put people in jail. People like to get tough on crime and my mantra, at least in Cumberland County, has been you can get tough on crime but that there is a cost for that,” he says.
Republican Sen. Kim Rosen of Bucksport, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, says she is confused by some of the findings of the report and needs time to review the recommendations. She and co-chair Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Democrat from Hallowell, hope that the department makes someone available to discuss the report.
Warren says jail funding is an issue that’s not going to go away.
“What our sheriffs are telling us is we need help. We need help with this system, we need help with the programs we are trying to run, we need help with the jails we are trying to run,” she says.
Most on the committee agree that the current two-year state budget doesn’t include enough money for the jails, and simply dropping a report on the desks of the committee is not going to solve the problem
Corrections Commissioner Joe Fitzpatrick could not be reached for comment on the new jail structure proposal.
This story was originally published Feb. 5, 2018 at 5:28 p.m. ET.