AUGUSTA — The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee heard from dozens of supporters of various emergency budget proposals Wednesday, part of the governor’s $25.6 million request for new spending. Innkeepers talked about the importance of spending more money on advertising for tourism; lawyers talked about the importance of paying judges more; and committee members asked some skeptical questions about how much of an emergency there really is.
Then the $3.5 million request for the corrections system came up.
House Speaker Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, came to the public hearing late in the icy evening and, in her soft, Southern accent, lashed into the Maine Youth Center. “There’s something wrong with this picture,” she said. “No one is accountable for this school.”
Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese said that he was “taken aback” when asked to visit the school and evaluate it. The school for incarcerated teen-agers there would not be approved, he said, until the more than $2 million request to the Legislature that is slated for the youth center is used to add teachers and improve the buildings.
The request is part of Gov. Angus King’s $25.6 million new spending proposal for the rest of this fiscal year and the next.
“Sixty percent of the children are not going to any school at all,” Mitchell said of the youth center, while five hours of schooling a day is required for all of them. “It is in violation of the law by ignoring special education needs,” and more than half the students there now need special education.
She added, “I don’t see any money here for counseling.” She told about a psychologist dealing with a boy who murdered his sister, “who was sentenced to the youth facility by a judge thinking he’d get counseling there.”
Officials from the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services also will begin evaluating the youth center as the Department of Education continues to work with them, Mitchell said.
Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson defended the $3.5 million supplemental budget request as committee members hammered him with questions about both the proposal in front of them and the $160 million corrections plan which department officials say will solve many of the deep-rooted problems in the system. The system is overcrowded, with medium-security inmates living four to a cell in some prisons, and the teen-agers especially crowded because of a dramatic rise in the number of juvenile arrests.
“I think they’re holding the kids hostage to the adult capital plan,” said Rep. George Bunker Jr., D-Kossuth Township, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, referring to the plan to make the overcrowded and expensive prisons more efficient in part through construction.
The juvenile portion of the emergency spending plan is still evolving, as conditions change day by day with fluctuating inmate populations and possible new options for housing being suggested. Magnusson said they have worked out a plan to extend their contract with the Cumberland County Jail — which is housing some of the teen-agers now — past April into another full year. And Sen. Michael Michaud, D-Millinocket, the Senate chairman of the committee, said that “they are talking with people in Limestone” about housing for young inmates.
Extending the contract with Cumberland County gives the youth center some breathing room, and Magnusson said they would request fewer new staff members in the emergency spending request — 10 new positions instead of 29.
Rep. Elizabeth Townsend asked whether that could possibly be enough people to really change the center, and Albanese said it could.
Mitchell told the committee to keep asking questions like that.
Rep. George Kerr, D-Old Orchard Beach, the House chairman of the appropriations committee, said that during the work session on the issue next Monday, “plan on a long and tedious day so we can justify what’s being said publicly about this plan. We need a clear understanding if we’re going to vote on $160 million of proposals that may not even meet our needs, so [the system] is not just a revolving door” for criminals.
Magnusson said, “We are looking forward to the opportunity to present the plan in full detail.”