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3/12/2014 2:00:00 PM
State Takeover of County Jails Not Recommended
By Charlotte Boynton

Lincoln County officials will be happy to hear the proposal for a state takeover of county jails will not be recommended to the Legislature by the state Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

During a telephone interview March 10, committee member Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said such a takeover would be a second choice option. "We are going to recommend the recommendations of the task force, and give the board of corrections the authority they need to operate," he said.

"If we can't fix it, we will have to do something, and a state takeover could be considered at a later date," Gerzofsky said. "For now, we are going to try fixing the county system."

Gerzofsky introduced the initial jail consolidation bill back in 2008. He said he knew at that time there would have to be some amendments to the bill.

"We didn't get it right the first time because some of the counties failed to work with us," he said. "Now we have them all at the table willing to work with us to improve the system."

The board of corrections was formed to oversee the county jails, as part of the 2008 legislation. The same legislation also put a cap on what the counties could raise for local property taxes for corrections and the state committed to pay additional costs of operating the jails.

From its beginning, the board had serious budget problems; limited by what they could raise for corrections by way of taxes, with the state routinely not meeting its funding obligations in a timely manner.

As a result, the board did not have enough money to support the budgets it had approved for the county jails.

Recognizing the new consolidated system was having problems, the 126th Legislature appointed a task force to study making the system more efficient.

The task force completed their study December 2013, and presented it to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee about the same time as Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte made his proposal for a state takeover of the county jails.

According to its report, the task force did not recommend a state takeover 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 task force recommendations did include changing the composition of the board of corrections' membership. Currently the board's membership consists of four representatives from various counties, two administrators, one municipal officer and two members of the public.

According to the task force recommendations, a revamped board would include four members of the public, along with one county commissioner, one sheriff, one county manager/administrator, and the Maine Commissioner of Corrections, or his designee.

The task force also recommends the board be given the power to withhold payments due to counties who refuse to accept assigned inmates or fail to comply with accounting and budgeting protocols; to curtail spending when directed to do so; and otherwise fail to operate in accordance with standards set by the board or the Department of Corrections.

The task force considered three other options to improve Maine's corrections system. They included the creation of four regional jail authorities modeled like the Two Bridges Regional Jail Authority with multiple counties cooperating to achieve regional efficiencies.

The task force also considered returning to the pre-2008 system of individual county responsibility. This option was not recommended because, in the opinion of the task force, it would be impossible to break the freeze on local property tax increases for corrections, which was established in 2008.

During a meeting last week with the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and Commissioner Ponte, the question of re-opening the cap came up as a possible way to help pay for the county jails. The cap is currently $62 million.

Lincoln County officials were not in favor of a state takeover of the county jails, or increasing the county cap for corrections.

Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett said he was not in favor of a state takeover of county jails for a number of reasons.

"The counties have worked hard to develop programs to reduce recidivism," Brackett said. "I am afraid these programs would be lost and the county jails would become a warehouse for the county inmate ... I don't see the state doing a better job running the county jails than the counties have done for the past 250 years."

Brackett said perhaps there would be a cost savings for a short period of time, but it would become more costly with repeat offenders.

"The cap is one of the most successful aspects of the consolidation system since it was established in 2008, and the state needs to be held accountable for the promise they made at that time," Brackett said during a telephone interview March 10. "With that being said, there may be a time we will need to look at opening the cap, but not at this time."

Two Bridges Regional Jail Administrator Mark Westrum said he doesn't agree with a state takeover of county jails, or opening the cap for additional costs to county taxpayers.

"If the state had lived up to their obligation and promise to the counties, we would not be in the situation we are in." Westrum also serves as the board of corrections chairman.

Lincoln County Commissioner Chairman William Blodgett also presented testimony before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, rejecting the state takeover as well as re-opening the cap.

Senator Gerzofsky said he would not want to see the cap re-opened because that would put a greater burden on the Maine taxpayers and the purpose of consolidating the county jail system was to save the taxpayers money. According to Gerzofsky, the consolidation of the jails has saved the state money.

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