Sheriffs oppose state takeover of county jails

by Daniel Hartill, Staff Writer Sun Journal Feb. 22, 2014

Sheriffs from 5 counties reach agreement

LEWISTON — Maine's sheriffs have voted unanimously to oppose a proposed state takeover of Maine's 15 county jails.

The message is scheduled to be delivered Monday to members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee as part of a separate jail proposal aimed at strengthening cooperative authority among the counties.

Several sheriffs, including Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins, are expected to address the committee with comments on one or both of the proposals.

"The law says we are the jailers," said Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who serves as the president of the Maine Sheriffs Association. "It's important that we respond (to the takeover bid)."

Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte floated the idea in a Feb. 11 letter to the Criminal Justice Committee, saying that the state is "well positioned to take over jail operations immediately."

The Maine Sheriffs Association met in Augusta on Thursday and agreed to draft an opposition letter rather than remain quiet.

"I was definitely in support of showing our opposition," Desjardins said.

Several sheriffs were unable to attend, including York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette and Hancock County Sheriff William Clark, but those who didn't attend sent representatives who joined the opposition message.

"I don't think there is a sheriff in Maine who'd say, 'Go ahead. Take our jails. We welcome it,'" Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who attended the meeting, said.

Most believe they are working well together despite severe funding shortages, he said.

Lack of money led to layoffs at several jails, as well as overcrowding and poor morale at some jails. At Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, four corrections officers resigned in a recent two-day period.

Money would fix many of the problems, Merry said. The state Board of Corrections has asked the Legislature for $2.8 million to get through the current fiscal year.

The Board of Corrections has also met one of its counties — Somerset County — in court over a funding argument that began when its sheriff decided to turn away inmates from other counties.

Maine Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander is expected to rule on the issue within the next two or three weeks, likely ending that argument, Liberty said.

Ponte, however, guaranteed that a state takeover would work better than anything currently planned.

On Feb. 12, he described the county system as "in crisis."

"Every day, some jails are shuffling inmates to find places for them to sleep," he said. "And that's not the way to run facilities."