b9e4af4dd701ea7d-propertytax“The governor’s goal is a unified system for two reasons: one is, it absolutely makes sense for the health, safety, and welfare of Maine people — including inmates with health problems, substance abuse, and special needs. Secondly, we need to do a better job financially for all the taxpayers”  —Director of State Planning Office Martha Freeman in the foreground. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Fall- 2007

By Ramona du Houx

Dialogue — the first step to bring about change. But all talk and no action leads to atrophy.

That’s what has occurred with our jail system. News reports, over the last ten years, continuously have told us about overcrowding, understaffing, and poor mental care programs at county jails. No matter how hard counties try to resolve their situations the problems keep multiplying, because the state’s demography is in transition. As a result property taxes keep going up.

This governor has had enough, he’s taking action that will stop property tax increases due to jail costs and streamline the prison system into one unified system.

“Property taxpayers statewide have been yearning for property tax relief. The bills have been going up double digit,” said Governor Baldacci.

The governor’s plan will alleviate property tax while improving the state’s jail system, making communities safer and more secure. Property tax rates attributed to jail costs would be frozen at their current levels. The state would pick up any future costs.

It cost property taxpayers $66 million in 2006 and an estimated $71.2 million in 2007 to support county jail operations.

“If nothing is done, that will balloon to $148 million by 2013 and $184 million by 2015, just for the county jails,” said Baldacci.

The measure would consolidate 15 county jail systems and the state corrections system into a single, statewide, unified system that would be managed by the Department of Corrections.

“We have been on the edge of a crisis for some time,” said the governor. “The current system is inefficient and unsustainable. People are getting hurt, they aren’t receiving the care they need, and the burden for this outdated system is falling directly onto the backs of property taxpayers. The system has to change.”

Maine’s prison system currently is overcrowded at ten county jails, while five are at or under capacity.

As with the governor’s plan for school consolidation of administrative units, many of those who strongly oppose the measure are the ones who are afraid they could loose their authority. The school consolidation of administrative units is working, with 75 of the 80 administrative districts submitting their consolidation plans on time.

 The idea of consolidating Maine’s prison system is not new. A report from the 1997 Privatization Task Force recommended a single statewide correctional system.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Marty Magnusson originally told legislators about the consolidation plan to alleviate the overcrowding in the prison system when lawmakers were considering shipping inmates out to correctional facilities in other states last January.

The Legislature’s Committee on Correctional Facilities, the Appropriations Committee, the Baldacci administration, and Magnusson worked together and found a solution — for the short term.

“Our current situation is intolerable,” said Baldacci. “We must act. 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.”

Costs locally for the county jails rose by 12 percent while the state jails only saw an increase of 6 percent during the same time period.

“The county system is drawing 12 percent a year where the state is drawing 6 percent a year,” said Magnusson. “Within the next seven years some counties would have to do major construction because we aren’t managing with 15 different entities. Four are considering new construction for next year, and so is the state. By coming together as one unified system we can stop all that construction,” said Magnusson. “That construction would cost $95 million we don’t have to have — if we come together in one system. Plus, we will reduce costs. We can have a system with unified polices and specialized facilities for the mentally ill, substance abuse, and women, allowing us to put our resources in specific locations.”

By creating a single, combined corrections system, projected costs can be reduced by $10 million in the first year. By 2015, annual savings will grow to almost $38 million.

“It makes no sense in this day and age for the property tax to bear the increasing burden of cost at the jail level. If we had a unified system, one management of the entire system would mean we could do it more efficiently and effectively. The jail costs are the largest cost of county assessment that goes to property taxpayers,” said Director of State Planning Office Martha Freeman. “In addition, regional correctional systems will match up with the prosecutorial districts; therefore there will be a much more efficient pretrial operation.”

A consolidated system that is designed to work in sync with the state’s eight judicial districts could effectively put a stop to practices that have been responsible for some cost increases. Lengthy jail terms before trails could be lessened, improving the judicial system as well as saving property taxpayers’ dollars. Reducing court fees paid by the county will save annually $250,000.

“If we have a systematic way of managing corrections, we can have a much greater effect on the rest of the criminal justice system,” said the Deputy Commissioner Denise Lord of the Dept. of Corrections. “We’re scheduling site visits to every single jail. The teams will be going in and looking at each jail from top to bottom. They will be collecting information and interviewing personnel about everything — the physical plant layout, medical and mental health services, human resources, programs, security, and staffing levels.”

As part of the plan, four county jails would be closed: Oxford, Franklin, Piscataquis, and Waldo. These closures will save an estimated $8 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2015.

A Unified Corrections System:

· Eliminates overcrowding – it will make at least 300 excess beds available

· Eliminates the need for counties to build new prisons and close four prisons

· Will freeze property taxes to pay for jails at current levels, guaranteeing property tax payers will not see tax increases due to the jail system

· Will save money. $10 million in the first year

· Will take better care of prisoners: with specialty programs to treat mentally ill patients, improved rehabilitative services including better treatment of substance abuse.

· Will improve conditions for women prisoners

·  Will make our communities safer and more secure

The plan would also allow for the creation of at least one specialty program — and perhaps two — that would treat prisoners with mental health issues. Currently, there is limited ability to treat psychiatric patients within either the prison or jail systems.

The combined system will also benefit from reduced administrative overhead, improved purchasing power and increased flexibility. Sharing functions such as medical and training operations, is projected to save $4.6 million in 2009 and $9 million in 2015.

“While constraining costs and relieving the pressure on property taxpayers is a high priority, our plan will also lead to better outcomes for prisoners,” said Baldacci. “We can’t continue to have prisoners sleeping on floors, and mental illness, and substance abuse going untreated. They are in our custody, and we are legally responsible for their welfare. We can’t wait for a crisis that puts the lives of guards and prisoners in jeopardy.”

The proposed merger would involve an increase in state administrative costs because state workers are paid more than their county counterparts. Those costs would be more than offset by savings elsewhere.

“I believe we need to wind up with one prison system, to make it more efficient. We need to unify the system. I supported taking over the county jails to begin with,” said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee on public safety. “It will have tremendous cost savings and provide better services.”

The governor’s merger plan will be submitted to the Legislature for consideration when they reconvene in January. Committee meetings will be held, recommendations and changes made before the bill is voted on.

“The whole process needs to go through the Legislature and appropriations will decide where the funding comes from. The governor has put his proposal forward, and he wants to let the process take its course. By the end of the session, we will have a better product, one that the majority of the Legislature will support,” said Gerzofsky.

“We are at the beginning of a process of the governor bringing forward a difficult issue, yet one that has been discussed a lot and studied a lot. We intend to sit down with everyone, and at the end of the day we will have a unified system. We will be looking out for the health, welfare, and safety of all Maine people, and all of Maine taxpayers,” said Freeman.

Six states have statewide, unified correctional systems that have yielded savings since their implementation and improved conditions for inmates.

“I want the workers in the corrections field to know that they are important and they are valued, and we certainly appreciate their service and want to continue to work with them,” said the governor. “This plan offers a guarantee that property taxes won’t go up to pay for county jails in the future. We know we have a problem, and we know what the solution is. Now, we must muster the political will to take action.”