Let’s just call former Gov. John Baldacci’s 2007 directive to consolidate jails a fail.
There’s no point in tiptoeing around it any more.
The consolidation plan — in which the state would take over control of the jails — was pitched as a way to ease overcrowding and relieve local costs, but jails are more crowded than ever and costs are rising. That plan didn't pass muster with the Legislature, and we ended up with an unhappy compromise on consolidation, with local management of jails but more burden for operational costs on the state.
It was clear more than a year ago that this compromise plan was not working and would never work as implemented, but no one seemed to want to take the lead to make it right.
So, the failure kept marching on.
The year after consolidation, Maine taxpayers spent $73.7 million on jails. The next year, we spent $75.2 million. In 2010, we absorbed another 2.6 percent hike and another 2.4 percent in 2011. In 2012, spending increased just 1 percent — the smallest increase since we agreed to the plan to “save” money — and this year Mainers will spend more than $80 million on our jails.
So, in the six years since Baldacci pitched this plan, spending has increased $6.3 million. We didn’t save anything.
And we haven’t eased overcrowding, either.
On Friday, Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said he was housing 157 inmates in a jail designed to hold a maximum of 144. In Bangor, where the jail is rated for 143 beds, sometimes there are 180 inmates housed there.
“It’s dangerous,” according to Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross. “And it’s getting worse.”
Ross is using the discretion allowed him under state law to furlough prisoners, releasing some after only one-third of their sentence is complete. And, the state Board of Corrections has encouraged this practice to cut costs.
Jail sentences aren’t merely punitive. They’re intended to be deterrents to crime.
What deterrent remains if we start handing out get-out-of-jail-early cards?
And what about the money invested in prosecution — including commuting inmates hundreds of miles between jails and courtrooms — only to release them early?
Does that even make sense?
The jails in Oxford, Waldo and Franklin counties used to be true jails. Prisoners were housed there overnight, or up to 364 days of a criminal sentence.
Under the Baldacci plan, these jails became 72-hour holding facilities intended to process, but not house prisoners. As a result, prisoners scheduled to spend more than three days in these jails have to be transported elsewhere.
In Franklin County, prisoners had been shipped up to Somerset Jail — a distance of some 30-some miles — until February 2012 when Somerset closed an entire pod of cells because the fee paid by other counties to house prisoners wasn’t covering Somerset’s costs.
So, Franklin County inmates were shipped to Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. That’s 68 miles, or about an hour and 45 minutes, each way.
By the time one of Franklin County’s precious few deputies loads a prisoner in a transport van, transports him or her to Two Bridges, finishes the necessary transfer paperwork and heads home to Franklin County, more than a half a work shift has vanished.
And that’s just to get the accused to a housing facility. Every time an inmate has to travel back to Franklin County for a court hearing, a deputy has to go fetch that inmate and then get the inmate back to the housing facility.
And, if there are no beds in Wiscasset, Franklin County prisoners are transferred to whatever jail has a vacancy, no matter the distance.
On some days, deputies spend more time commuting criminals than patrolling county roads. On days of multiple transports or court appearances, these chauffeuring duties mean deputies aren’t doing any meaningful police work at all.
That just doesn’t make sense.
And it’s just gotten worse.
Part of the scheme of state supervision of county jails was a promise that the state would pick up more of the cost of operating Maine’s jails. And, then, the state never did. And, now, the state says it won’t be able to pay its share come mid-May through the end of the fiscal year.
No county in Maine budgeted for this crisis and can’t possibly pick up the state’s unpaid promise. So, the looming reality is layoffs of jail guards, increasing early release of convicted criminals and maybe even closing some county jails altogether.
Talk about an epic fail.
In May last year, the Board of Corrections met and discussed the challenges facing the counties, and there have been multiple meetings and endless discussions since. If something isn’t done, it’s going to be worse in 2014 and even worse in 2015.
On Saturday, asked about this crisis, Gov. Paul LePage pledged to meet with all 16 Maine sheriffs to hear their concerns. He said he hoped to be able to schedule that meeting as early as this afternoon. That’s quick work.
But, another meeting isn’t going to resolve anything.
Jail consolidation has failed.
Let it go. And let the counties have their jails back.