County jails could close under LePage administration proposal

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Oxford County Jail

STATE — A proposal to restructure Maine county jails could result in the closing of the Oxford County Jail.

County jails in Androscoggin and Franklin counties could also close in a model released by the Maine Department of Corrections.

In a 12-page proposal issued Friday by the Maine DOC, the creation of the Maine Jail Commission would oversee the operation of the 15 county jails. Those jails would be divided into three authorities — southern, coastal and northern.

The goal of the DOC would be to close one or two county jails per authority. The cost savings would be “felt immediately,” according to the report.

According to Rep. Martin Grohman (I-Biddeford), a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the DOC recommends closing five county jails.

In a model presented to the committee, closing the Androscoggin, Oxford, Franklin, Washington and Piscataquis county jails would save the state nearly $11 million.

County officials criticized the proposal and its reported savings.

Androscoggin County Administrator Larry Post blasted the report Monday, saying county officials were not consulted. He added that the savings claimed in the report do not add up.

“A sixth-grader could have done a better job at analysis,” Post said. “Simply, it furthers an agenda without any real credible facts involved.”

The Androscoggin jail is the largest of the five suggested for closure, with an average daily prisoner count of 162 inmates. The jail, however, has the lowest costs in Maine, at $37,000 per inmate. Cumberland County, for example, has an average cost of $47,000.

“Quite frankly,” Post said, “they don’t seem to have a sense of reality of how things work and for all the costs involved.”

For example, the report does not take into consideration the cost to transport inmates to court appearances, Post said, which would increase significantly under the proposal. Post also wonders how municipalities and counties would handle police coverage issues if officers were tied up transporting individuals to a distant county jail following an arrest.

Franklin County, for example, would have to transport its inmates to Madison.

“It would be about a three-hour trip by the time the inmate is brought to a jail, booked and the officer returns to the town he or she works for,” said Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols.

He added that towns who have police departments would have to call in another officer to cover while the officer transports the inmate.

Although Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole declined to comment saying, “We aren’t going to comment right now, because it’s a little premature in the process,” Oxford County Jail Administrator Dana Dillingham was frustrated by the report.

“It is my understanding the commissioner of DOC was tasked by the Legislature for his recommendation. In December several county sheriffs, jail administrators and county commissioners met with DOC Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick and gave recommendations on what they thought needed to be fixed and what needed work.

“I don’t see any of that in the proposal.”

Dillingham said he spoke at that meeting on behalf of Oxford County.

“Our jail is run efficiently and is financially responsible,” Dillingham continued.

He noted that back in 2008 “they [the state] capped us so low … we have a lower cap than counties with fewer inmates through their doors.”

The bottom line, he explained, is not really how the counties run their jails but the lack of funds from the state.

“We get funding two ways: At the county level through property taxes and through the state which is supposed to make up the difference.”

Dillingham said the state has capped what the county can levy in taxes to a three percent annual increase while school districts and municipalities have no cap on raising taxes. “The state is supposed to make up the difference [between tax income and actual costs] and that’s never happened … we are always shortchanged.

So what will happen if the Oxford County Jail is closed?

“That’s a really good question … I don’t know what will happen,” said Dillingham.

He cites the fact that if a Paris officer has to take someone to Cumberland County Jail it would take about two and a half hours between the journey there and back and the time doing paperwork at the jail. During that time he asks, what will Paris do about coverage? “And that’s Paris … what about Rangeley or Rumford which are farther away?”

However, Norway Chief of Police Rob Federico isn’t very concerned about the possibility of the jail closing having a negative effect on his town and officers.

“From a logistical standpoint, yes it is a problem,” he said, noting that the problem might arise for one in 10 arrests.

“If you look at the statistics, most arrests could have been summoned.”

In other words, he explained, that with the exception of domestic violence arrests,  those in violation of bail or an arrestee fighting and resisting and acting “crazy” his officers can either issue a summons or “book and bail” right from the police station. Even OUI’s can be done that way if there is someone to come and get the drunk driver.

“Look at Rumford, Mexico, Fryeburg and Bridgton … they don’t travel the long distance to the [Oxford County] jail, they all “book and bail.”

“Book and bail” is when the bail bondsman is called to the police station itself to bail out the arrestee. The process is the same as it currently is at the jail. Federico said the jail is simply convenient, so they take their arrestees there.

He noted the state police can charge someone right from their cruisers with a personal recognizance bail or promise to appear.

He said his only concern might be officers who don’t bother to bring someone back to “book and bail” and simply tell the offender “don’t do it again” and send them on their way.

“Mine won’t,” he said, “because we have body cameras and they had better not!”

Federico said the Norway Police Department has been preparing for the possibility of the jail closing for five years ever since is was taken from a full-time jail to a 72-hour holding facility.

Oxford Police Chief Jon Tibbetts said, “I am 100 percent against the closing of the three jails {Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin].”

A closing of the jails, he said, “would be very bad for us as the nearest holding facility would be Cumberland County in Portland. We wouldn’t be arresting lots of people, that’s for sure.”

He said “book and bail” is a possibility but even that would tie an officer up for two to three hours to handle the whole booking process and wait for a bail commissioner to get there. If they had to transport, it would add another hour on.

“Ideally we would have more officers on a shift,” he said, “but that costs money.”

He further noted that his station isn’t a secure facility and not ideal for “book and bail.”

“I was against the consolidation in the first place and it really isn’t working. Oxford County spends a lot of time on the road [transporting to Two Bridges] … they are constantly back and forth with prisoners.

Prisoners not only have to be transported to the full-time jail, they have to be brought back and forth for court.

“I think we can come up with something better,” said Tibbetts, “if everyone involved sat down and put their heads together.”

Proposal

The proposal creates a Maine Jail Commission with an executive director, a few paid staffers and a seven-member board of directors appointed by the governor. The commission will control funding for the jails.

Each of three regional authorities will have an administrator and a board of directors of 12 members consisting of county commissioners, sheriffs, members of the DOC and the members of the public.

The DOC says the new plan would better utilize bed space in the system. It cited only two of the jails had overcrowding issues in October 2017 — Androscoggin and Penobscot — resulting in more than 500 empty beds in the system.

“Under the regional approach, even with the closure of 1-2 facilities per region,  these beds become available at no additional cost,” according to the report.

According to the model shared with the committee, Androscoggin and Oxford would send its inmates to Cumberland County, which, according to the DOC estimates, has 231 available beds.

Grohman said greater savings could be achieved with employment, mental health and substance abuse programs in jails.

The DOC admits the plan  may not be without flaws.

“This proposal may not be perfect, but the administration of sound public policy shall not be based on perfection; perfect shall not be the enemy of good public policy,” according to the report.

This is the latest plan to overhaul the county jail system. In 2008, the legislature created the Board of Corrections as a compromise between county and state control.

A critic of the system, Gov. Paul LePage said it provided the counties with no incentives to cut costs. The system collapsed in 2015 when the governor refused to to fill the vacancies on the board.

Current jail funding costs approximately $80 million a year. The counties pay $62 million of that with the state picking up the rest.

The DOC did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

A.M. Sheehan contributed to this report.