Saturday, December 7, 2013
AUGUSTA — Maine’s Board of Corrections denied Franklin County officials’ request to re-open the county jail as a full-service facility on Tuesday in a 5–2 vote.
Board members who voted against it said they were concerned that other state jails would be hurt if the Franklin County jail re-opened and kept the $600,000 it pays into the unified jail system to house inmates elsewhere.
Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols and other county officials have lobbied the board to change the jail’s status since the sheriff took office in January, but complaints date back to a 2009 law change that unified state jails and reduced the Franklin County jail’s status to that of a 72-hour holding facility.
Nichols said after the vote that the result wasn’t unexpected because the state system is using Franklin County unfairly to prop itself up.
“The state of Maine depends on Franklin County to make it work,” Nichols said.
Several board members said they were open to revisiting and supporting the request to switch the jail’s status if the Legislature decided to fund the unified jail system fully.
Only board members Randall Liberty, Kennebec County’s sheriff, and Carl Barnes, who manages a consulting firm in Calais, voted in favor of the motion, with two members absent.
Liberty said county officials should not think of Franklin County officials retaining their $600,000 as a loss to the state jail system, as the county would use the money toward the system’s goal of reducing recidivism.
“So it’s not a loss to the system; it’s their money to be used in Franklin County,” he said.
Liberty also expressed frustration that the board made the county go through months of deliberation, which shouldn’t have been done if members knew they were going to deny the request.
Jail officials and attorneys have said the system also could violate inmates’ rights by removing them from families and attorneys and taking away opportunities to participate in the work-release programs that were available when the jail was fully operational.
Local officials, led by Nichols, have said the county is wasting time and money by not having a fully operational jail.
Law enforcement officials now have to travel more than 70 miles round-trip to transport inmates between jails in other counties and Franklin County Court in Farmington.
A growing group of county residents has expressed frustration: 750 have joined a Facebook group called “Give Franklin County our Jail Back.”
Nichols said about 100 residents surprised him with a list of signatures supporting his request before Tuesday’s vote, which the sheriff gave to board members.
Board members who voted against the proposal cited the funding crisis facing the state’s unified jail system, described by officials in the past as being “catastrophic.”
The board voted last month to fully fund the state’s jails for the rest of the fiscal year, despite not having enough money to fund even 25 percent of requests.
That decision was made in hope that the Legislature would fund the unified system fully, which has never been done.
The state’s 15 county jails were run independently until 2009, when Gov. John Baldacci created the Board of Corrections, made up mostly of county officials, to oversee a unified system that could find efficiencies to reduce the overall cost of county corrections.
The legislation that created the board sought to create property tax relief by capping money raised by counties for corrections at 2008 levels, which totals $62.3 million.
The state, meanwhile, promised that it would make up the difference to meet the jails’ actual operating costs. It hasn’t.
While board member Amy Fowler said “the state needs to pony up and be responsible for the statutes we create,” she said she would feel unable to go to the Legislature for money after re-opening the jail and losing $600,000 from Franklin County.
Nichols said if the state’s jails are already in a funding crisis and retaining Franklin County’s $600,000 would not solve the problem.
“Why just punish us for that?” he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252