State board asking for more money for Maine jails

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AUBURN — The state will have to spend millions of dollars more on jails before it breaks the cycle of annual budget crises, the leader of Maine’s jail system told Androscoggin County commissioners Wednesday.

When the Legislature meets in January, it will be greeted with a Board of Corrections request of more than $2.5 million just to reach the end of the fiscal year in June, board Chairman Joel Merry said.

And requests for more millions will follow.

An additional $4.4 million will likely be requested for the 2015-16 fiscal year and a hike of $6.5 million will be needed for the fiscal year ending in 2017, Merry said.

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In Androscoggin County, the money would mean that needed increases in day-to-day expenses would be met. It might also prevent worries that hit the county the past two Aprils, when leaders anticipated layoffs of corrections officers and even the partial closure of the county jail. Last-minute funding during each of the past two years prevented such emergency action.

Getting bigger budgets won’t be easy, though.

“This is going to be the toughest year,” Merry said. The board’s savings are gone. “This is the second year of a biennial budget that was funded at the same level as the previous biennial budget. That means that we actually have the same amount of money in fiscal year 2015 as we had in fiscal year 2012. For four years, everything has been the same. We’re at a bottom point right now. We have no place to go but up.”

While being flat-funded, the state’s jails have been squeezed with more and more inmates. On Tuesday, Maine’s 15 county jails held 1,814 inmates. Their state-determined capacity is 1,846.

The Androscoggin County Jail had 147 inmates; the state-determined capacity is 160. This past summer, when inmate numbers tend to be low, the Auburn jail’s population surged to all-time highs of more than 180.

Changes at the Board of Corrections follow April’s change in state law that gave it more authority. It also limited the board to five members, rather than its former nine.

Six months later, it has yet to operate at its full number. Holdovers from the previous board, Merry, Waldo County Commissioner Amy Fowler and Calais consultant Carleton Barnes Jr., were supposed to be joined on the board by two LePage appointees.

Those appointments have yet to be made.

Until the board has its full complement, it is limiting its voting decisions to essential ones only at the recommendation of the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

However, other work is going on among its committees. So far, counties are cooperating better than ever, said Merry, who is Sagadahoc County sheriff.

One topic that’s being tackled is a common system of categorizing inmates across the state with regard to their security rating: minimum, medium and maximum.

Each county had its own definition.

“We put all the classification directors in one room,” said Jeff Chute, the Androscoggin County Jail’s acting administrator and a member of the committee that oversaw the change. “And then they came to us with some solutions.”

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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