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2/19/2014 2:00:00 PM
State Corrections Commissioner Proposes State Takeover of Jails
By Charlotte Boynton

In a Feb. 11 letter to Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the state remains ready to take over the county jail system.

In a three-page letter discussing the report of a task force studying the Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System, Ponte argues the board has failed to contain costs or improve operations across the state.

Ponte lays the blame for funding shortfalls at the feet of the Board of Corrections, blaming a lack of fiscal restraint at the county level. He cited the report by the Commission to Study the Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System, which states costs have continued to increase since 2008 and one of the reasons for it being a lack of fiscal discipline at the local level.

"What has been stated as a funding problem is, in reality, a lack of financial restraint," Ponte writes.

Other flaws in the system, Ponte cites, include a lack of standardization and the fact most decisions are made locally under the current system. Ponte alleges the BOC has proven it does not have the will to enforce its own authority and has provided little direction in the last couple years.

In his letter, he advocates doing away with the 12 member Board of Corrections and replacing it with a five person board, appointed by the governor and chaired by the Department of Corrections, arguing that such an arrangement would at the very least, "provide a platform for more effective and timely decision making."

"I don't believe the state system is better than the county system, but I do believe the state system already provides services throughout the state and is well positioned to take over jail operations immediately," Ponte wrote.

Ponte's letter expands on written comments he has provided to the committee arguing that state oversight of the county jails system would create an economy of scale, streamline leadership, and ensure resources are distributed evenly throughout the state and increase professionalism among the unelected state employees.

The Board of Corrections was formed as part of the legislation passed in 2008 that addressed the state's attempt to consolidate and control the county corrections system. The same legislation also instituted a cap on what the counties could raise from local property taxes for corrections and the state was supposed to assume responsibility for financing any additional operation and capital improvement costs.

The 126th Legislature commissioned a task force to study what was working well and what was not working well. The task force was given about six months to complete their study, which was due this past December. Task Force chairman David Flanagan presented the final report to the Criminal Justice Committee Jan. 13.

Before recommending the reconstruction of the Board of Corrections system, the Task Force evaluated three other potential options to address the issues, including returning to the pre-2008 system of individual county responsibility; creating four regional jail authorities modeled along the same lines as the Two Bridges Regional Jail; and the Department of Corrections take over the county jail system.

According to the Task Force report they did not recommend the state take over of county jails because "Such unification would overturn 350 years of political culture and tradition in Maine, requiring a redefinition of the roles of county officials and employees, and perhaps of the county government system itself."

The report also indicated "a single statewide system would be unable to adjust to local pay scales and thus might incur additional, unnecessary costs."

According to the weekly schedule of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee they discussed the report of the Task Force on Feb 10.

The next day, Feb. 11, Ponte, a member of the task force, and of the Board of Corrections, released his letter.

Among other comments, Ponte said, "The make-up of this committee (the task force) limited any serious consideration of any alternatives other than to maintain the Board of Corrections."

Chairman of the BOC and the Corrections Administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail, Colonel Mark Westrum, had no comment on Ponte's proposal. Westrum did say he was encouraged by the interest the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had in making the current system work.

"I was pleased with the tone and willingness to fix some of the deficiencies that exist with the system and am looking forward to the public hearing on Feb. 24," Westrum said.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, a member of the task force said in a telephone interview Feb. 18 he was surprised with Ponte's letter, and could take issue with several of the issues raised in the letter.

Merry questioned why Ponte waited for six months to make this announcement, and why he made it at about the same time Flanagan's report of the task force was being discussed by the Criminal Justice Committee.

"Not be willing to try the recommendations of the task force is very short sighted," Merry said.

Lincoln County Administrator John O'Connell said he was more than surprised by the letter. "To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly," he said.

According to O'Connell, the assertion the state could do a better job than the counties is close to ridiculous since they have very different missions. The state runs prisons and counties run jails. Prisons have long term, sentenced inmates versus the jails which have a mix of short term, pretrial, pre-sentencing and first time offenders, O'Connell said

The DOC would definitely spend less money but would not deliver the needed services to the population that the counties serve, according to O'Connell.

O'Connell said he believes Lincoln and Sagadahoc Counties have been the biggest casualty in the corrections system since the Legislature tried to consolidate the county jail system.

"We have played by the rules and it hasn't paid off," he said.

Because of the importance of the counties' role in the county jails, O'Connell has requested a meeting with county administrators and managers within the week to review the draft Flanagan report and related draft legislation.

The purpose of this review would be to see whether they could assist county commissioners develop a true county position that could be supported by all the individual counties, O'Connell said.

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