LEWISTON — A legislative task force created to repair Maine’s foundering network of 15 county jails is nearing a compromise that would boost the system’s authority to place inmates wherever there are empty beds.

The compromise could force Somerset County to open its jail to inmates from the Franklin County jail in Farmington, which has been forced to transport prisoners to facilities hours away. Somerset County jail is the closest facility and typically has dozens of empty beds.

The current compromise would also shrink the state’s Board of Corrections, allow the board to set a standard for when a jail is full and encourage counties to find ways of helping people serve sentences without full-time incarceration.

The proposal is a long way from law.

The task force, officially titled Commission to Study the Board of Corrections, is still working on its proposed jail fix. It is scheduled to complete its work Dec. 6 and forward its proposal to the Maine Legislature.

“I’m really kind of optimistic that the document that we put together will at least give the Legislature some comfort that the issues we’re dealing with now will not come back another five years down the road,” said Capt. John Lebel, administrator of the Androscoggin County Jail and a member of the task force.

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The compromise draws ideas from three opposing plans, ranging from a state takeover of the system presented by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to returning control of the jails and their financial responsibility to the counties. A third plan would have divided the state into four districts.

Task force Chairman David Flanagan forged the compromise, taking pieces of each plan. So far, the proposal has wide support on the task force, said Mark Westrum, chairman of the Board of Corrections.

“Something’s got to happen, because we can’t continue to do business as normal,” said Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. “I think it’s been shown that the way we’re doing it currently isn’t working, for a whole host of reasons.”

Problems have been growing for more than a year.

In 2012, Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong and commissioners challenged the Board of Corrections, saying the state did not have the authority to force him to take out-of-county inmates. The state paid the county too little for the added responsibility, far less than the per-inmate rate paid to Somerset for the federal inmates it also hosted.

Delong said taxpayers in his county needed the money to help pay the debt on the jail, the newest in Maine. He closed the doors to other counties. The state withheld money. And it sent ripples through the system.

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The struggle has moved to court. Westrum said he is hopeful that lawsuits will be dropped if a solution is found.

Money would also ease tensions throughout the system.

In May, several sheriffs, including Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins, warned that too little money could force them to lay off corrections officers and stop accepting inmates.

Worries culminated in a meeting between Gov. Paul LePage and Maine sheriffs. That meeting led to the task force.

Change is needed, Westrum said.

If money worries can be handled, the board would have more time to find ways to keep inmates from returning to jail, he said. Also, special programs could be created for female inmates and inmates with mental health problems.

“We could finally address some of the things we were put in place to do,” he said.

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