The wheels are spinning on Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to merge county jails under the Maine Department of Corrections, but it’s not his fault.

The blame rests with Maine’s counties, whose feelings were “hurt” after consolidation was “sprung” upon them.

Just prior to Thanksgiving, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee was surprised to discover that the Maine County Commissioners Association and the state weren’t working together toward a consensus proposal, despite their charge. Their relationship, according to reports, has crumbled from lack of “trust.”

We say the counties should check their emotions at the door.

Consolidating the jails is nothing personal; it’s strictly business. Corrections expenses statewide have spiraled, and the layers of county-managed jails and state-managed prisons are ripe for finding efficiencies. Common cost-drivers like health care, transportation and overcrowding aren’t solvable within a vacuum.

The counties don’t have to trust or like what the state proposes. But to serve the taxpayers of Maine – to whom they are ultimately accountable – they must make a good-faith effort toward finding savings.

Mal Leary, of the Capital News Service, has reported the counties are paying a consultant $90,000 to recommend changes to the jail system, probably just to refute whatever the state wishes to implement. An MCCA official, Bob Howe, was quoted as being unsure about what the consultants were thinking.

This indicates two things: The counties, which now manage the jails, haven’t the slightest idea how to improve the cost-effectiveness of their systems. And, instead of working through a process they might dislike, they’ll pay outsiders tens of thousands for a process they know little, or nothing, about.

Somehow, counties feel “hurt” for being a consolidation target. Howe was quoted by Leary as saying, “When some people have cooled off we can discuss some things.”

We agree that cooler heads should prevail. Consolidation isn’t for the faint of heart, or the easily ruffled. And hurt feelings are part of politics. So, in the spirit of compromise and public service, we urge counties to become part of the important effort to find corrections savings.

Or, we ask that they get out of the way.


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