Memo to Gov. John Baldacci: Don’t stop consolidation with county jails.

On Thursday, the governor released his proposal to consolidate county jails under the Maine Department of Corrections. Four jails – including those in Franklin and Oxford counties – would close, amid promised savings of $10 million in the first year alone.

Areas touted for efficiency are obvious: administration, bulk purchasing, staffing “flexibility” and better bargaining power for contract negotiations. But if Gov. Baldacci wishes consolidation to really save money, it must also address escalating jail costs that will exist regardless of who is in charge.

Prisoner health care and medication, for one. Overcrowding, for another, fostered by the revolving jailhouse door of recidivism, and offenses related to drug consumption and trafficking. And the need for competitive salaries and benefits for employees in workplaces with the unique challenges of jails and prisons.

These responsibilities will only shift to the state, unless policies to relieve these pressures accompany consolidation.

Stronger discretion in sentencing with an eye toward embracing alternatives to incarceration, for example, is just as needed as administrative efficiencies. So are greater treatment opportunities for the drug-addicted, which other states, such as California and Maryland, have expanded to relieve prison populations.

Drugs and recidivism are, after all, partners in crime.

The governor’s proposal does seem to resolve another chronic jailhouse issue: the practice of prisoner boarding, in which one county pays another to warehouse prisoners. Crowded jails pay other counties with vacancies usually $100/day for boarding, as well as the cost of transporting boarded inmates around the state.

If all bunks belong to the same landlord – the state of Maine – this cost should become unnecessary.

This would also wipe away a significant revenue stream for some counties, but a staggering expense for others. State absorption of jails has a monumental fiscal impact on an entire county government, as removing its largest, most expensive purpose would further cripple the weak county bureaucracy.

Yet counties set the stage for this takeover by failing to control rising jail costs, which made taxpayers cry foul. Only with the opening of the shared jail between Lincoln and Sagadohac counties was progressive action taken.

It’s little coincidence two states cited by Baldacci as having statewide jails – Rhode Island and Connecticut – gutted their archaic county governments into mere boundary lines. A third, Vermont, has vestiges, having retained only an elected sheriff and judge within its 14 counties.

“The current system is inefficient and unsustainable,” the governor said, in announcing his jail proposal. “The burden for this outdated system is falling directly onto the backs of property taxpayers. The system has to change.”

This sentiment could also apply to counties, as a whole.

So keep going, governor.

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