AUGUSTA, Maine - The State Board of Corrections has voted unanimously to ask lawmakers in January for an additional $2 million, as the state’s county jails continue to face budget problems from higher-than-projected costs and more inmates than estimated.
For weeks, the Board of Corrections and its staff have been hearing from county officials about the budget problems facing the jails. They got a supplemental appropriation to get through the budget year that ended June 30, but higher costs of operation, driven by more inmates are continuing in the new budget year.
Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry chairs the Board. "It ebbs and flows, and right now our total system capacity is nearly maxed out. It is very high. We don’t have the funding available to authorize the opening of any additional pods that might be available," Merry says.
Many jails are constructed with additional sections, called pods, that can be opened, when needed, by adding additional staff. Sheriff Merry says there are many reasons for the higher numbers of inmates this summer, including more alleged crimes. "A lot of it is driven by pre trial detainees, inmates, that are waiting to go to court," Merry says.
Based on discussions with county officials, Board Executive Director Ryan Thornell said he expects the system will be short of funding again this year. He says it is difficult to project based on just one month of the new budget year, so he used last year’s actual expenses and applied an across-the-board increase of about 2.5 percent to come up with the $2 million request to be submitted to the budget office Sept. 1.
"We will continue working with counties as openly and transparently as we can, and have been, to further justify that," Thornell said, "and we’ll refine that as we get into the legislative supplemental request in January. And that number could go up, could go down, could stay the same."
Thornell told the panel the two-year budget being prepared for the board will also be difficult because of some one-time changes caused by the downsizing of the Aroostook County Jail. He says the board will be seeking $16.6 million in the first year and $16.8 million in the second.
Sen. Dawn Hill, a Cape Neddick Democrat who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, says the budget for the county jails has been controversial, and that some lawmakers were banking on a consolidation plan under a state board to save money.
"I guess it goes back to the issue we have been working on for years, and unfortunately had vetoed this year, which is the criminal code needs to be revised," Hill says. "It’s archaic and some of the punishments are too severe, and we are putting too many people in jail and prison."
Hill says supplemental budget requests are not uncommon and that the new Appropriations Committee will likely consider all of them. She expects other state agencies to also come forward, but the Board of Corrections is the first to seek extra funding.