PORTLAND (AP) – Amid a sharp rise in the number of prisoners in Maine, a legislative commission will look at ways to reduce the state’s corrections costs and rein in the growth at prisons and county jails.

The Commission to Improve the Sentencing, Supervision, Management and Incarceration of Prisoners was created by the Legislature, given a $250,000 budget and instructed to report back with legislation by Dec. 3.

The commission, whose members have yet to be named, will include judges, prosecutors, advocates for the mentally ill, representatives of county government and several branches of state government.

“The charge is to look at nonviolent, low-risk offenders,” said Denise Lord, associate commissioner for the Department of Corrections. “Are there alternatives to incarceration that still provide community safety, hold the offender accountable – because it is criminal behavior – but address the reasons why they’re engaging in criminal activity more effectively than incarceration might?”

Among the alternatives up for review will be expanded treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

The cost of running Maine’s adult prison facilities has climbed almost 50 percent in five years and last year the state’s prison population grew at a rate of 11.5 percent, the fastest of any state. County jails also have experienced rapidly rising costs and record numbers of inmates.

Lawmakers last year were faced with a 15 percent rise in the Department of Corrections budget at a time when many other departments were being cut back to close a budget gap.

Five years ago, the state launched a $140 million program to expand, renovate and replace its prison facilities, a plan that was to add capacity for 10 years. But the new space created for adult prisoners is already full. The state now holds about 2,000 adult prisoners, although it had budgeted for only 1,849 this year.

With the growth in prison population, the cost of operating the state’s adult prisons has risen from $43 million in 1998 to $63 million in 2003.

The picture is similar at county jails. York County just opened its $20 million jail, built to relieve overcrowding at its former facility that contributed to a riot in 2001. In Cumberland County, which has the state’s largest jail, the number of inmates stood at 189 in 1994 and recently hit a peak of 479.

A key focus of the commission’s work will be community corrections, methods of managing offenders in the community rather than in jail or prison.

Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, expects that a county jail is the logical place to launch a pilot program on community corrections because the inmates sentenced there are serving less than a year and for crimes less serious than those people in state prison.

“What we seem to see is we don’t have any more criminals (than previously), but I think the community sentiment for punishment has been just that, for punishment, and we translate punishment as jail time or prison time,” Dion said. “We know that jails are very expensive ways to accomplish punishment.”

“If you look at accountability, where people are punished but moved to a setting where they can be productive again, make reparations to the victim and the community, that’s not only good social policy, it’s good economic policy,” Dion said. “It’s not being soft on crime. It’s being smart on punishment.”

AP-ES-08-11-03 0216EDT

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