The Baldacci administration’s plan to have the state assume control of the operation of the county jail system does not sit well with the Maine Sheriffs’ Association – or with one sheriff whose jail would be closed.
“It’s just asinine,” said Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin.
The association’s executive director, Robert Howe, said from Augusta on Thursday that the proposal would likely end up costing taxpayers more in the long run and does not take into consideration the needs of local law enforcement agencies.
“We have a number of problems with it,” Howe said. “I don’t think it’s fair for the county taxpayer to pay for something they don’t have control over. We think the state’s assumptions about the cost savings are flawed.”
As an example, Howe pointed to the recommendation that four county jails, including those in Piscataquis and Waldo counties, be closed and converted into 72-hour holding facilities. He said counties would still have to pay for the personnel, heat and upkeep at the holding facilities while at the same time paying for the operations of a jail in another county. In addition, he said, the cost of transporting inmates to and from courthouses within the counties to jails outside the counties would skyrocket.
“The Department of Corrections is not in the law enforcement business and I don’t think they understand the needs of the law enforcement system,” he said.
Howe said the mission of county corrections and state corrections were not the same. He said the state incarcerates individuals for long periods of time. The counties, on the other hand, often hold inmates while they are awaiting trial or being held pending sentencing. The counties also use various pre-trial diversion programs to help reduce the cost of holding inmate.
“We’re concerned that that may be lost if the state takes over,” Howe said.
Piscataquis County taxpayers will not save a nickel from the governor’s plan, according to Goggin.
In fact, closing the jail would mean a revenue loss of thousands of dollars a year, the sheriff said. He said the county expects about $500,000 this year in revenue from the boarding of federal prisoners, money the county uses to help reduce the county commitment.
Because of that, “We are one of the least expensive county jails in the state of Maine,” Goggin said.
He said the savings projected by the state are a “lot of smoke and mirrors right now. … If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would almost be funny.”
What galls Goggin, he said, is “the lies” state officials told county jail officials earlier this year.
Goggin said county officials were told this summer that the jail consolidation concept was off the table for discussion, that it would go no further. Then at the “eleventh hour and 57th minute,” the governor finds he needs to make $10 million in cuts and the issue resurfaces.
“I don’t care for the lies that were told to us,” Goggin said.
Under the governor’s proposal, the costs in Piscataquis County would shift from operating a jail to running a transportation system, according to Goggin.
Inmates would have to be transported to and from the Penobscot County Jail, about an hour away. Piscataquis County would be at the mercy of Penobscot officials regarding expenses such as boarding fees and medical charges.
“It’s just going to displace the officers, the inmates, the witnesses and the victims,” Goggin said. “It’s going to add an additional expense.”