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Single state showdown
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/10/2007

Maine Maine is making a bold move. The state’s governor recently proposed bringing the county jails into a single statewide corrections system. Even though the plan only exists on paper, it has already ignited a fiery debate amongst law enforcement professionals across the state.

The plan would combine prisons with jails, which the county sheriffs’ offices currently manage into one system controlled by the Maine Department of Corrections. The department believes the new system will help ease the persistent overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails while reducing operational costs and property taxes.

“Right now operational costs in our county jails are growing at 12 percent,” says MEDOC Associate Commissioner Denise Lord, who helped develop the plan for the governor. “The average annual growth rate in costs for prisons is six percent. We believe a unified system can bring the cost of running jails more in line with the prisons.”

There are currently three states in New England that operate jails and prisons under a single system: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. By joining its neighbors, MEDOC believes the state could save taxpayers at least ten million dollars in the first year and make more than 300 excess beds available. Improved bed management is a key initiative the department says will contribute to savings.

“Rather than investing in more jail capacity, a consolidation would let us use what we have more efficiently,” Lord says.

Currently, ten county jails are at or over capacity, while five jails have excess capacity, which means there are more beds than inmates.

“If you have a ten-bed wing for medium security prisoners and your facility houses ten medium security prisoners, you’ll put one prisoner in each cell,” Lord explains. “But what if those cells are double-celled? That jail won’t see a need to change because they are not over capacity. Meanwhile, a neighboring jail that is over capacity could really use those double cells. If instead we were to look at all of the medium security cells in the entire state, we could free up the empty beds and figure out a way to get a finite number of beds to go further.”

Lord believes a combined system would offer many other operational benefits over the separate offices.

“There are certain efficiencies that a single system can have and 15 independent offices can’t,” she says. “We’d have combined purchasing power. Also, the ability to contract for certain services, like medical, would assure standardization and continuity of care. We’d be moving into a standardized information system and using technology like video arraignments and video telemedicine.”

The plan proposes to close four out of the 15 county jails and freeze county assessments to pay for jails at their current levels, which the DOC says will protect property taxpayers from future growth in costs.

“I think there’s a considerable interest in this plan from municipalities who indirectly pay for our jails with property taxes, which is a primary revenue source for jails,” Lord says.

‘Considerable interest’ would not be the way to describe how many sheriffs are responding to the plan. In fact, the official statement from the Maine Sheriffs’ Association declared, “We wish to go on record as opposing in the strongest possible terms the proposal unveiled by the Governor to take over the county jails.”

“By its own admission the DOC knows there is a lot not worked out in this proposal,” says Bob Howe, executive director of MSA. “Yet what we know of it, we think some parts are poorly thought out. I think the plan fails to recognize the importance of the connection between local sheriffs’ offices, jails, and local law enforcement.”

Maine sheriffs have two primary duties: local law enforcement in their jurisdiction and running the jail for their county. If four of the jails are closed, Howe believes more problems than solutions will arise.

“Half of Maine’s prisoners will have to be sentenced to some other county,” Howe says. “The idea of sentencing people to counties outside where they live, and I’m referring mostly to fairly low risk, short term offenders, runs counter to what I understand to be good corrections practice.”

There also is a debate over whether closing the jails will actually increase costs for the state.

“It’s looking to us as though the state may leave counties with the cost of transporting inmates from jails to court appearances and other venues,” Howe says. “Those transportation costs could increase considerably because the state is proposing to close down the larger counties, which are rural and less populous, but big geographically. So instead of transporting an inmate from county jail across town to the courthouse, they’ll have to go to another county.”

The sheriff’s offices in the four counties that may be closed plan to compare the believed increased transport cost with what it would cost to keep the facilities open as temporary holding facilities.

“The DOC’s plan may possibly save money, although we haven’t been provided with enough information to verify this,” Howe says. “We’re going to be taking a very close look at it with corrections consultants of our own. We have proposals of our own called a joint state-county corrections authority that the administration has so far declined to discuss.”

The joint authority would not be a system run entirely by state government, but instead involve a state and local level of government with appointments by the governor.

“There is a need for counties to work more like a system, that’s one area I agree with,” Howe says, “but we think this can be addressed short of a state takeover.”

Currently, Maine’s governor is considering calling a special October legislative session to address the MEDOC’s proposal.

“The timeline for the next two to three months will include deciding whether to bring the proposal to legislation in October or later on in January,” Lord says. “A decision could come as soon as December or as late as April. We’ve been looking at a July 1 start-up date.”

Howe isn’t convinced the proposal will be able to get that quickly off the ground.

“Our sense is this proposal is not getting much traction,” he says. “We think it’s more likely to be reviewed this coming January, when we expect our proposal to be heard.”

Whether it comes down to dueling proposals next year or an emergency session in just a few months, both the department of corrections and Maine’s sheriffs have made it clear that neither is backing down without a fight.

Related Resources:

Get the details of the governor’s proposal

Read an editorial supporting the single state system


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