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Maine Corrections Chief Proposes Takeover of County Jails
02/13/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Whether one talks to a county jail administrator or the state's corrections commissioner, there is no disagreement that the county jails are in crisis. And that's the word that was circulating around the State House today, where requests for additional money have been made by the State Board of Corrections for operating funds. Meanwhile, Maine's corrections commissioner is proposing a complete takeover of the county jails. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The obstacles facing the state's 15 county jails are almost too numerous to count. There are unpredictable census counts that result in jail overcrowding. There are prisoners who should be held in a psychiatric facility whose problems are being addressed as best they can in a jail. There are transportation issues that sometimes delay or prevent prisoners from making scheduled court appearances. There are ongoing issues around insufficient jail staffing.

And then, as Mark Westrum, the chairman of the State Board of Corrections, and the administrator at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, points out, there's the bricks-and-mortar issue.

"A lot of our jails are old, they're decaying, they need some major capital improvement, they need infrastructure monies - or they need to be closed, pure and simple," Westrum said. "There's no other way around it."

On Wednesday, Westrum testified before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, where the board was asking lawmakers to consider finding an additional $2.5 million in the current fiscal year that ends June 30 to help maintain operations at the county facilities.
Westrum says all of the county jails are coping with different problems. Some are overcrowded. Others have empty beds. But in either case, additional funds would help some facilities with staffing.

"The request was not a surprise to us and this is just for FY '14 - they're going to be coming with an additional request for FY '15," Rep. Peggy Rotundo said.

Financial problems at the county jails are not news to Rotundo, the Lewiston Democrat who serves as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. She says her panel will need to review the issue with more scrutiny at a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting. Rotundo says the need for adequate funding is not necessarily the jails' fault.

"The jails are working as efficiently and effectively as possible using cost-savings methods to try to bring down their costs for food and medication, for example, and some of the jails are working really hard to do that," she said. "There's some outliers as well which we've been concerned about, but we will certainly take their requests very seriously and look at it and hope that they will also continue to look at cost-savings measures so that they can operate as efficiently and effectively as possible."

And on the same day that lawmakers were hearing new funding requests from the jails, legislators on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee were reviewing a letter from state Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who wants the state to assume the full $80 million cost of running the 15 county jails and take over the system.

First proposed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci eight years ago, a state takeover of county facilities is a sensitive topic in many parts of the state where the county sheriff and the county commissioners oversee those operations.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says Ponte's recommendations may actually be well received by some lawmakers who say, 'Why not?' since the state already foots $20 million of county jail costs. Ultimately, Gerzofsky says the prisoners' needs must be met in a way that does not abuse taxpayers - whether they are state or county.

"If we're not going to fix it, the state's going to have to take it over - or the county's going to have to take it over," Gerzofsky said. "The taxpayer is a major loser if the counties take it over."

In the meantime, lawmakers such as Rep. Tom Windsor, a Republican on the Appropriations Committee, continue to weigh their options. Windsor got one suggestion from Mark Westrum, the administrator at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. "Is there anything that we can do that might make that easier?" Windsor asked.

"I'd say find some money and get some more judges - we really need help getting people through our system, and unfortunately, there's a backlog of inmates that sit in our jails far too long waiting to get into court," Westrum replied.



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