AUGUSTA — The state corrections commissioner is calling for a state takeover of Maine’s 15 county jails, saying the system is “on the verge of collapsing.”
In a three-page letter distributed Wednesday to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the state corrections system is “well-positioned to take over the jail operations immediately.”
The county jail system has enough room for all of its inmates but is poorly run, allowing some counties to maintain dozens of empty beds while others are severely overcrowded, he said.
“We’re in trouble now,” Ponte said in a State House interview late Wednesday. “It’s at a crisis. Every day, some jails are shuffling inmates to find places for them to sleep. And that’s not the way to run facilities.”
The announcement comes just as the Criminal Justice Committee is crafting its own fix of the system, working from the report of a blue-ribbon commission initiated by Gov. Paul LePage.
In December, the commission recommended fixes to the six-year-old unified jail system that included broadening the authority of the State Board of Corrections to override the wishes of any county sheriff or jail administrator and place inmates in any Maine jail.
It also would force counties to submit separate budgets for operational and capital costs and to manage their expenses in a single, unified accounting system.
The Criminal Justice Committee has had three meetings with county leaders to discuss the proposal and twice has met with the blue-ribbon commission chairman, former Central Maine Power CEO David Flanagan.
Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said he was disappointed by Ponte’s timing.
“It’s unfortunate in the sense that it’s going to create a lot of anxiety at the very time we’re trying to structure a renewed collaboration among the counties and state government,” Dion said.
Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said he, too, was disappointed. He said he believed the commissioner last year when he said there was no plan for a state takeover.
“I’m insulted,” Desjardins said Wednesday night. He wished Ponte, who served on the blue-ribbon commission and serves on the State Board of Corrections, had expressed himself earlier.
“It’s like he’s had this all planned,” Desjardins said. Maybe he was waiting for the jails to fail so the state could begin its takeover, the sheriff said.
A state takeover of county jails was first suggested in 2006 by Gov. John Baldacci, who suggested that many millions could be saved under a state-run system.
The current system grew out of the compromise system that capped the amount each county could spend on its jail.
Today, the state pays about $20 million of the system’s $82 million cost. The remaining $62 million is paid by the counties through property taxes.
Ponte said he had talked with LePage about his takeover suggestion.
“Neither the governor nor I want to dictate to the counties how they need to run,” Ponte said.
Rather, a state-run system would be one sure-fire way of fixing the problem, he said. The Flanagan plan was too moderate to succeed, he said.
“I don’t think it goes far enough to correct the problem,” he said. “And we don’t have a year to try whatever the outcomes are. We need to fix this. And we need to fix this quickly. We can’t nibble around the edges. And it’s urgent. So we can’t just say, ‘Well let’s try this.’ It’s like, ‘No.’ We need to do something that we know, or have a degree of confidence in this is going to work.”
He added, “We’re trying to offer solutions that I will guarantee you will work. I guarantee you a unified system will work and work well in the state of Maine.”
However, Dion insisted any such restructuring would be impossible during the current legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 15.
New laws would have to account for the ownership of the jails, their debt and their operation.
For example, Maine statute defines the sheriff as the supervisor of every jail administrator. That would change.
“It’s not possible this session,” Dion said.