oxford, Maine

County jails failing under state control

Editorial Board Sun Journal May 17, 2012

Four years after Maine patched together a "consolidation" of county jails under state supervision, it's abundantly clear the experiment isn't working.

The latest evidence of that came Tuesday when Franklin County corrections officers began transporting inmates from Farmington to the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

Under the state consolidation plan, Franklin County no longer has a jail, only a 72-hour holding center. It had been sending longer-term inmates to the Somerset County Jail in Madison, about 30 minutes from Farmington.

But on Tuesday, it began sending them to Wiscasset, which is more than 60 miles and at least an hour and a half away, tripling the drive time for the jailers and inmates.

That's plainly foolish, especially when you consider those inmates may have to return to Farmington several times for court hearings. Meanwhile, an entire pod of cells at the nearby Somerset County Jail will sit empty.

And the problem for Franklin County may worsen, according to Mark Westrum, chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections and administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail.

"If the system has beds somewhere, that's where they'll be going," Westrum told a Sun Journal reporter Tuesday.

The problem is money, and Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong said he isn't receiving enough of it to cover his expenses.

"The state was paying me $22.50 a day to house people not from the county, and I'm paying $270 to house my own people," he told the Sun Journal. "I found that not very acceptable."

The current system may be saving money, but it is too often shortchanging counties, jails and the families of prisoners.

Maine's county sheriffs have been complaining about the consolidation from its inception in 2008. At the time, Gov. John Baldacci proposed folding all county jails into the state's correctional system.

What finally went through the Legislature was a halfway consolidation, which put the state Board of Corrections in control but left county taxpayers footing a capped portion of the overall bill.

That has particularly irked counties that built new facilities and are still paying a higher proportion of the costs. Meanwhile, most sheriffs feel the state is failing to keep up with its promise to adequately fund rising jail expenses.

By closing a section of its jail and refusing to take out-of-county inmates, Somerset County is issuing a challenge to the Board of Corrections.

That board will meet next week, and it must to come up with solutions quickly. That will require amazing ingenuity, since the legislative session is closing without adding additional corrections funding.

Franklin County inmates may be traveling farther and farther as more counties defy the state.