Jail costs handcuff counties

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AUGUSTA – The cost of locking people up in Maine’s county jails is rising too fast, leaders from across the state testified Monday.

Of Maine’s 15 county jails, all but five are overcrowded. Some are sending inmates to other jails at the cost of $100 per day. And new jails – including the state’s first regional facility – are planned for completion in coming years.

“These jails are driving us into the poor house,” Bill Sneed, a selectman from the Waldo County town of Prospect, told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Sneed was joined Monday by several Maine sheriffs – including Androscoggin County’s Guy Desjardins – to examine a pair of bills before the committee aimed at easing the burden on counties.

Monday’s hearing, the first on the bills, packed the State House committee room.

One bill would create a system of regional jails. Those new jails would exclusively house convicted criminals, leaving those people awaiting trial to continue to reside at existing facilities.

The other bill would cap the length of sentences served at county jails to no more than six months, effectively handing over hundreds of crooks to the Maine Department of Corrections.

“If nothing else, we’re learning that Androscoggin is not the only county that is dealing with these issues,” Desjardins said. “It’s going to start a process.”

Both of the bills will face tough opposition.

The regional jail proposal would cost millions to counties and is opposed by many – including counties that have just opened jails and groups such as the Maine Municipal Association.

“I have the bed space I need and I don’t need another jail,” said David Harmon, the administrator of the new Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft.

The situation is unusual, though.

Jails such as those in Androscoggin and Kennebec counties are more common.

Though designed for 98 people, the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn has added bunks and converted space over the years to boost its state-rated capacity to a jam-packed 146.

Cells made for one inmate now host two. Classrooms are gone. Spaces meant to separate inmates from each other to avert violent behavior are filled, Desjardins said.

If it wasn’t for programs such as pre-trial services – which finds alternatives to incarceration for non-violent people – the jail would be in a full-blown crisis.

It’s worse at the Augusta jail, Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said.

His jail is rated to hold fewer than 140 people but the population has surged to 200, he said.

Liberty is counting on the second bill – transferring some inmates to the state prison system – to relieve the problem. With the shorter sentences, he could shrink the population by 52 people, he said.

The shift would not solve the crowding, only move it, said Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections.

“We have a state system that’s overtaxed,” Magnusson said. A sudden jump in the population – adding an estimated 600 inmates to the Maine’s prisons – could cause a “collapse,” he said.

It would also cost the state money, an estimated $35 million in construction costs and $18 million each year to operate, he said.

Sen. Roger Sherman, a committee member from Aroostook County, asked again and again who would pay for the inmates to be added to state system.

Supporters argued that it would relieve counties and therefore aid property taxpayers.

“The jails are running us into the ground, financially,” said Esther Clenott, a Cumberland County commissioner.

Meanwhile, former streams of revenue are gone, Desjardins testified.

In 1995, the Auburn jail brought in approximately $200,000 in income by boarding other jails’ prisoners, he said.

This year, he tried desperately to project even $10,000 in revenue from boarding inmates as he worked on the jail’s proposed $3.7 million budget. He gave up after talking with Jail Administrator John Lebel.

“This year’s budget for revenue is zero dollars,” Desjardins said.

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