Two Bridges Regional Jail, once a champion of recidivism and reentry programs, is transforming into a warehouse for inmates, jail officials said to Lincoln and Sagadahoc county legislators Friday, Dec. 11. There are solutions to the budget crisis that has reduced staffing to critical levels; options are on the table, Lincoln and Sagadahoc Multicounty Jail Authority members said.
However, such options will require both short- and long-term action by the Legislature, members said. In a special meeting organized to educate legislators about the real-world impact of Public Law 335, formerly known as An Act to Reverse Jail Consolidation, on Two Bridges, jail officials asked legislators to communicate a message to Augusta – state policy is driving county jail costs.
The county jail system is in immediate need of a short-term supplemental funding appropriation of approximately $2.4 million to get it through the current fiscal year, members said. Public Law 335 initially called for state funding to county jails to be set at $14.6 million, which was reduced to $12.2 million in the appropriations committee, due to the unavailability of funds, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said.
The legislation that became Public Law 335 contained serious flaws which have tied the jail authority’s hands in raising revenue for Two Bridges, members said, and will eventually need to be fixed. The distribution formula for the $12.2 million in state funds allocates money to the counties where inmates originate, as opposed to the county jails where they are housed.
The legislation simultaneously prohibited county jails from charging per diem boarding rates for housing inmates, preventing state funds from “following the inmate” and going to the jail that boards them. Merry, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association, was present during the legislative process that made a flawed piece of legislation Maine state law.
“The clock hit midnight,” Merry said. “Appropriations needed to have everything on the table. They tried to clean up (the legislation) but couldn’t.”
According to Merry, the committees handling An Act to Reverse Jail Consolidation did not understand the concept of transferring inmates to different county jails throughout the state – a concept Two Bridges was designed for. “The idea of moving inmates around got the legislative committee confused, as you may be right now,” Merry said to legislators.
Lifting the cap on property taxes is one solution, Merry said, and would enable counties to raise the additional revenue needed to keep their own jails operational and enter into contracts with other counties to house their overflow inmate population.
That solution, however, places the burden of county corrections squarely on the shoulders of property taxpayers, Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett said, and a large percentage of the county taxes municipalities pay already go towards the jail. While counties foot the bill for county corrections, the factors driving the costs at county jails are created by the state, Westrum said.
Pre-trial inmates are housed in county jails before they are sentenced, Westrum said. Inmates that are convicted of a crime oftentimes remain in county jails because of concurrent sentences which do not pass the nine months threshold which would send them to a Department of Corrections facility.
Probation officers work for the Department of Corrections, yet county jails are required to house inmates placed on probation holds, Westrum said. “The state expects us to take on more and more, but doesn’t provide us with the funding we need,” he said.
Westrum walked legislators through the history of the Lincoln Sagadahoc Multicounty Jail Authority and Two Bridges Regional Jail. At the time the jail authority formed, Sagadahoc County was the only county in the state without a jail and Lincoln County’s jail was experiencing overcrowding.
Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties joined together to build Two Bridges as a solution. Two Bridges was based on the regional jails of Virginia, Westrum said, and built under the premise it would house inmates from outside counties and subsidize its operational and construction costs with boarding rates.
Almost as soon as Two Bridges opened its doors, the state consolidated the county jail system and eliminated the jail’s ability to directly charge counties for boarding rates with the promise the state would compensate its flagship jails for housing inmates from outside counties. The promise was broken and year after year, under consolidation, Two Bridges faced budget shortfalls from a lack of state funding.
Year after year, Lincoln and Sagadahoc county taxpayers complained their tax dollars were subsidizing inmates from outside counties.
When consolidation was reversed, the jail authority made a conscious decision not to board inmates from outside counties unless payment was received. Unable to charge per diem boarding rates due to the legislation, the jail authority looked to negotiating contracts with outside counties as a loophole.
Outside counties, however, are experiencing their own budget shortfalls and do not have the revenue to enter into contracts. While some county jails are overcrowded to the point where a tragedy is almost inevitable, members said, Two Bridges’ inmate population is at a historic low.
With revenue not matching expenses, Two Bridges’ has been forced to eliminate its entire administrative staff, and decimate its programming, which helped support inmates’ reentry into society.
“We’re spiraling downhill so quickly it pains me,” Westrum said. “We never wanted to be a warehouse, but we’re becoming a warehouse.”
Jail authority members pleaded with legislators to support an emergency supplemental funding bill, fix the legislation that has created a crisis in the county correctional system, and address the broad societal issues, such as addiction and mental health, that are driving people into the jails.
“The state needs to look at the real reasons people are coming into the jails,” Westrum said. “It’s so much easier to treat people than incarcerate them, but if the jails are going to be the catch all, somebody needs to pay for it.”
Recognize policy at the state level is driving costs in the jails, were among the final words legislators heard before they left Two Bridges. “Recognition of that is going to be a huge step going forward,” Westrum said. “Thank you for acknowledging it.”