The Nov. 26 editorial criticizing counties for not participating in a jail consolidation process was ill-informed. We were unaware of any process until announcement of the governor’s plan, developed without county input. Even members of the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice were in the dark.

After hearing things second-hand, we filed a Freedom of Access Act request and were granted a meeting with the Department of Corrections hours before the governor’s August press release. Under questioning, the DOC revealed no intention of paying for debt service, operational costs or added transportation costs resulting from this plan.

Let’s be clear what this plan is about. Couched in terms of jail efficiency, it is really about solving the state’s prison overcrowding and understaffing. The counties have empty beds because they’ve planned ahead. When the state reached crisis stage, counties collectively offered the state 175 of those beds, some of which the state is using. Unsatisfied with a cooperative arrangement, it wants to control county beds without paying for them.

The governor’s announcement included questionable fiscal assumptions which we sought help in analyzing. The DOC has begun modifying its plan based on facts gathered during visits to county jails, conducted after we engaged nationally-known corrections experts to take a close look.

The newspaper claimed counties don’t know how to improve jail operations. But, it is not incompetence when public officials ask experts to recommend improvements. Many pressures are beyond county control, e.g. detainees in some judicial districts waiting two years before getting to court.

Counties fully participated in the two-year Corrections Alternatives Advisory Committee. The $300,000 CAAC report identified many ways to reduce jail and prison populations, but these were passed by the state for grabbing empty jail beds when its overcrowding reached crisis stage. Not everyone ignored the report. Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and her judicial colleagues are moving some criminal cases faster, easing the burden on some jails.

The governor’s plan relies on “reverse revenue sharing.” Local property taxpayers will send money to Augusta to subsidize DOC operations. The state will “save” money, diverting property tax money by closing rural jails, offsetting reliance on the state’s general fund. These “savings” will be included in a budget bill, forcing legislators to swallow the plan or cut programs. It is a cynical way to run state government and should not happen.

That doesn’t mean we settle for status quo in jail operations. With the consultants’ help, counties will put a plan before the Legislature. Perhaps we can still work with the state on a plan we can all support.

But it wouldn’t be bad if legislators have more than one option to consider.

Robert S. Howe, Dresden

Editor’s Note: The author is a former state legislator and president of Howe, Cahill & Co. of Augusta, which has represented county government at the State House for 20 years.


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