AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci, asserting that “our current system is intolerable,” outlined his plan Thursday for a state takeover of Maine’s county jail network.
The plan would consolidate 15 county jail systems and the state corrections system into a statewide system managed by the Department of Corrections. It envisions closing four jails, in the counties of Piscataquis, Waldo, Oxford and Franklin, and setting up one or two special programs providing prisoners with mental health treatment.
Financing for the jail system consolidation remained unclear, but in a written statement the administration said annual savings from such a move could grow from $10 million in the first year to nearly $38 million over time.
“We must act,” said Baldacci, who has championed a school system consolidation just getting under way. “The state prison system and a number of counties with older facilities don’t have enough room to house inmates while other counties have beds left empty.”
According to the administration, local property taxes to support county jails amounted to $66 million in 2006 and an estimated $71.2 million in 2007. The administration said jail operations could cost $148 million by 2013 and $184 million by 2015.
State officials say that over the last three years, the cost for counties to operate jails has increased by about 12 percent per year, while the cost to operate the state prison system has increased by about 6 percent per year.
In explaining the rationale behind the plan, Baldacci administration finance chief Rebecca Wyke said the proposal relies on efficiencies to lower operating costs and avoid construction expenses. She said details of the financing would have to be worked out.
The administration statement said the current county assessment for jails would be frozen, implying that the state would be able to use that amount, and the state would take over responsibility for future growth in costs.
As the governor’s outline was being released, some lawmakers expressed positive interest in the concept.
“Based on what little I know, I would say that it makes sense,” said Republican Sen. Karl Turner of Cumberland, a ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee.
There was also skepticism.
“There’s something to be said for streamlining the system and designating specific facilities for specific uses and cutting back on transportation costs,” said Democratic Rep. Janet Mills of Farmington, another Appropriations panelist.
“But I don’t think we’d see the savings overall that they’re projecting,” she added, saying there would likely be limits on how much personnel costs could be reduced.
The House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Democratic Rep. Jeremy Fischer of Presque Isle in Aroostook County, said he foresaw resistance in at least some areas of the state.
“Our county is very opposed to it,” he said.
For such a plan to advance, he added, “I think there needs to be a good selling job and a lot of information.”
Baldacci has been talking with legislative leaders about the jail takeover idea and has suggested that it might be desirable to take up the matter in a special legislative session this year rather than wait for the next regular session to begin in January.
On that score, Turner was doubtful and Mills was dismissive.
Turner said there would need to be “a lot more work done than what I’ve seen so far.”
Mills called a special session devoted to such a complicated issue “a waste of our time.”
In his statement, Baldacci said a new system would eliminate the need to build new jail and prison facilities in the near future and improve administration.
“While constraining costs and relieving the pressure on property taxpayers is a high priority, our plan will also lead to better outcomes for prisoners,” Baldacci said.
The administration pointed to statewide corrections systems in Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont.
“This isn’t new ground. Other places have been very successful with similar initiatives, and Maine can be too,” Baldacci said.
Currently, four counties and the state are considering new construction for next year, according to the administration.