By Joseph Ponte
“Neither the governor nor I want to dictate to the counties how they need to run.” That is what I told Lewiston Sun Journal reporter Dan Hartill on Feb. 13. Mr. Hartill was asking questions about a Feb. 11, 2014 letter I had delivered to members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. In that letter I made two broad points, First, the managing of county jails under the current authority of the Board of Corrections is a failed system. Second, the state corrections system is ready, willing, and able to take a leadership role in managing the county jails.
But how to fix the county jail system — or whether to fix it at all — is ultimately a decision made by the Maine Legislature.
My letter has been typecast as, in the words of one headline, a “call for State takeover of county jails.” That’s disappointing inasmuch as it draws attention away from the real issue: the very serious challenges facing county jails. I wrote in my same letter to the Criminal Justice Committee, “I don’t think the State system is better than the county system …”
The State of Maine is in a situation now where the county and state correctional systems are dependent on each other. In very simple terms, that means that four years of the current failed system under the Board of Corrections is having a negative impact on both systems. And Maine taxpayers are paying for this failure in real dollars.
During some of the most difficult budget years in state government, county jail spending has increased every year, on average, by 2.4 percent. The jail inmate populations during that time stayed relatively flat. The cost increases have been driven primarily by increases in salaries and benefits. The state will be required to fund these costs forever.
Recently the Commission to Study the Board of Corrections issued its final report — which is available on the Maine Department of Corrections website. As Gov. LePage says in his Feb. 20, 2014 letter to Maine’s Senate President, Maine’s Speaker of the House, and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs, “In the Commission report there are four options that are laid out for your consideration.”
Here are the Commissioners’ recommendations:
1. Give the running of the county jails back to their respective counties;
2. Organize the county jails into four regions run by four regional authorities;
3. Have state government take over full operation of the county jails; or
4. Give the Board of Corrections more authority in certain categories.
The Study Commission vote on the recommendations was in favor of Option 4.
Gov. LePage goes on to say in his Feb. 20 letter to Legislative leaders, “It is for you to determine which option should be adopted into law. Whichever option you choose will have to be one that provides adequate funding, authority and oversight to the jail system which is currently so very lacking. The only option … unacceptable to me at this time is … perpetuating the problem by leaving the severely flawed system unchanged. If these flaws are not resolved before you adjourn, then I fear that the normal functioning of the county jails will be in jeopardy during the near term.”
We have a broken county jail system that begs for leadership and standardization. We have four options or ideas on the table for fixing the broken system. If an individual or group has other ideas for creating a healthy system — terrific. But, the option of “do nothing” is not acceptable.
As the Governor says of the “do nothing” option in his letter, “The resulting impacts would be felt by not only the jails, the court system, district attorneys’ office, and police agencies, but most importantly, it would be felt by the general public.”
Joseph Ponte is commissioner of Maine’s Department of Corrections.