AUGUSTA, Maine — Months after U.S. Department of Justice reviewer Rod Miller warned that Maine’s county jail system was “possibly about to run over a cliff,” state lawmakers have resolved to find a correctional funding fix in their current session.
Though the state’s county jail funds are projected to run dry by spring, state legislators like Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, announced to state corrections officials that they are ready to find financial solutions. “We will work very hard together,” said Gerzofsky. “Expect to come back. We’re going to go through it again. We’re going to be here a lot. We’re going to get it right this time.”
A presentation and 37-page report from David Flanagan, who led the 15-member commission tasked with reviewing the state’s county jail system and current legislation, presented several potential funding shortfall solutions. The commission’s plan would primarily give the Maine Board of Corrections authority to place inmates in any of the state’s 15 county jails, overriding facility authorities if need be. It further requested that counties submit both an operational budget and a capital costs budget, and then manage all costs under one accounting system.
“I don’t know if this will be enough,” said Flanagan after presenting the commission’s recommendations. “I don’t know if this will do the job. But I think it’s worth trying for the next couple of years and seeing if it can be made to work.”
The state’s county jail system was created by the legislature in 2008, and has consistently faced funding challenges. As recently as December 2013, the State Board of Corrections, which was established just a year later by then-Gov. John Baldacci, told jail operators to prepare for no funding increases, as well as potential layoffs and closures. Then the board then narrowly approved an $80.3 million budget for FY 2013-2014, an increase of just 0.6 percent.
Despite the modest increase, the approved budget still fell nearly $4 million short of the amount county jail operators requested to avoid closures and staff reductions. At that time, board members said they would seek additional funding from the state legislature in the January session. Currently, the state contributes roughly $20 million to the county jail system, while an additional $62 million is paid for through county property taxes. This funding arrangement was established under the same 2008 legislation that created the statewide jail system. That particular piece of legislation was developed in part by Gerzofsky and then-Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, who now serves as the Democratic representative from Portland.
Though counties have not yet exhausted their funds, county jail officials across the state already report having to reduce some staff, and move others to a seven-day work week. They have also blamed rising repair and health care costs for consistently depleting already tight resources. The editorial staff off the local Kennebec Journal has even pointed to the state’s “ineffective” bail system, stating that roughly 75 percent of inmates currently held in county jails are awaiting trial — at a great expense to taxpayers. For his part, Gerzofsky noted that he was eager to review, and potentially restructure, wage practices, noting county correctional officers are “paid for on the backs of the state taxpayers.”