Smiles all around at the bill signing for a new correctional system in Maine. Governor John Baldacci signs the new law in Augusta, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Summer 2008

Article  by Ramona du Houx

Last August Governor John Baldacci proposed creating a unified jail system for the state of Maine. This April the governor signed LD 2080, An Act To Better Coordinate and Reduce the Cost of the Delivery of State and County Correctional Services.

“I’m proud and honored to have worked with some great leaders. I’ll carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. We knew our correctional system was broken, and despite our differences we came together for the people of Maine,” said Sheriff Scott Shorley.

The bill creates a new structure for the State’s Department of Corrections and county jails to become a unified correctional system.

“It required everyone working together; we sat down and did what the people of Maine would want us to do. We used Maine Yankee common sense to get it done. We began this process with a system that everyone agrees is too costly and which does not work well for inmates or for taxpayers,” said Governor Baldacci. “The new system created under this law will be more efficient, will serve inmates better, and will reduce rising property taxes. We have today the prescription for a unified system that reduces costs and improves services.”

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.

“Its great piece of legislation for everyone involved in Maine’s correctional system and Maine tax payers. It’s great for the health, safety, and welfare of all Maine people,” said the director of the State Planning Office, Martha Freeman. “It also stands for what we can do together in terms of creating the new structures that we need to run Maine in the 21st century. A lot of our government structures are two to three hundred years old. It’s time to evolve while maintaining local input, local control, the real collaboration and community that is Maine.”

Department of Corrections Commissioner Marty Magnusson said, “This is an incredible opportunity to move forward. This is a huge reorganization of the correctional systems statewide. The cooperation between county sheriffs, county commissioners, legislative leaders, Maine Municipal Association, and the Governor’s Office was unprecedented.”

The legislation, which passed with strong bipartisan support, creates a nine-member State Board of Corrections that will determine the best use for county facilities, approve budgets and develop uniform policy and procedures for consistent system-wide pretrial, revocation and reentry practices.

The board will also establish a Certificate of Need process to consider future State and county corrections capital construction projects, develop a plan for a system-wide information network, and implement bulk purchasing of commodities, medicine and services.

“For the first time ever, we will have a coordinated purchasing program, coordinated transportation program, and coordinated bed management plan. Gone are the days where county sheriff cars pass each other on the highway as they transport prisoners back and forth to the same sites,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, the Senate chair of the Public Safety Committee.

“The new law will replace 16 separate systems with one unified one. As the panel finds more ways to consolidate costs and deliver services, even more savings will be realized. We’ve given this new board the opportunity to develop creative and real solutions to the problems that drive costs up and prevent the state and counties from really reforming prisoners,” said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, the House chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.

“The new system will help the state’s corrections system to reduce recidivism, improve mental health evaluations, and streamline classification. These are all measures that will save money and help us to identify the best way to incarcerate and treat prisoners.”

The State Department of Corrections will be responsible for managing bed space throughout the system, inspecting and investigating county corrections facilities, approving mental health placements, and staffing the Board of Corrections.

The unified corrections system plan will allow corrections officials from county jails and state jails to take advantage of all open available beds in the system. Senator Diamond pointed out, “We have empty beds now, but we’ve lacked a coordinated effort. This plan brings everyone together and creates a wider inventory of space available, so that available prison beds are not isolated or wasted where there is need.”

Jail employees will stay county employees, and day-to-day operations of jails will remain with sheriffs.

The property tax contributions for jail expenditures will be capped at the 2008 budgeted jail costs.

“This is truly historic,” said Rep. Patsy Crockett the bills sponsor. “It protects Mainer’s while reducing property tax.”