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Earlier this year, Maine was on the verge of crisis in our prisons and jails.

Prisoners were left sleeping on the floors, guards were stretched to their breaking points and the Legislature was left struggling for answers.

Through the hard work of the Appropriations Committee and Criminal Justice committee, working with my administration and Commissioner Marty Magnusson, we were able to develop a short-term solution that protects our dedicated corrections officers and the inmates they oversee.

But the fix was temporary and the problems of an overcrowded and outdated system persist.

They demand immediate action.

I have a plan that will save taxpayers – property taxpayers - millions of dollars, that will relieve pressure on property taxes and keep the state from wasting money on new prisons and jails we don’t need.

As it stands today, we have 16 separate corrections systems, all operating in one State of Maine.

The current system is inefficient and unsustainable. People are getting hurt, they aren’t receiving the care they need, and when they do receive it, it’s too expensive, and that burden falls directly onto the back of property taxpayers.

The system must change.

My plan will unify 15 separate county jails with the state Department of Corrections, to create a single statewide system.

It will save money. It will take better care of prisoners. And will make our communities safer and more secure.

Over the last three years, the cost for counties to operate their jails has increased about 12 percent per year. During that same time, the cost to operate the state prison system has increased about 6 percent per year.

By creating a unified system, we can reduce the overall costs for housing prisoners by $10 million in the first year alone. By 2015, annual savings will grow to almost $38 million.

So without a unified system, at least four counties and the state will be forced into borrowing millions of dollars to build new facilities. With my plan, that’s not necessary.

It cost property taxpayers $66 million in 2006 and an estimated $71 million in 2007 to support county jail operations. If nothing is done, it will balloon to $148 million – property tax dollars - by 2013

It’s too much. We can do better.

My plan will create at least one specialty program – and perhaps two – that would treat prisoners with mental health issues. Currently, as you’ve read in the newspapers, there is limited ability to treat psychiatric patients within either the prison or jail systems. The unified system will also benefit from reduced administrative overhead, improved purchasing power and increased flexibility.

While constraining costs and relieving the pressure on property taxpayers is a high priority, our plan will also lead to better outcomes for the prisoners. We can’t continue to have prisoners sleeping on floors, and allow mental illness and substance abuse to go untreated.

These men and women are in our custody, and we are responsible for their welfare. We can’t wait for another crisis that puts the lives of guards and prisoners in jeopardy.

This isn’t a new idea. We have been talking about solutions to overcrowding and treatment problems in jails and prisons since at least the 1990s. I have a report from the 1997 Privatization Task Force that recommends a single statewide correctional system. Other states, including our neighbor Vermont, have already gone down this path with good results. It’s the right choice for Maine, too.

I know it’s difficult. I know it’s hard to change. But we cannot continue to burden our taxpayers and have a system that really is dysfunctional.

I understand that there are a lot of questions out there and that there are some sheriffs and county commissioners that are upset that they might lose some of their authority. But we all have to put the interest of the state – and our citizens and the common good – above our personal ambitions.

And I want the workers in the corrections field to know that they are important and they are valued and we certainly appreciate their service and want to continue to work with them.

My plan would freeze the current county assessment for jails.

The state will take over responsibility for all future growth in costs, which would protect those property taxpayers from double-digit increases in jail spending and the debt which would have been required to build new county jails.

That’s what this plan offers -- A guarantee that property taxes won’t go up to pay for county jails in the future.

Before I put my plan forward, you weren’t likely to hear too many good things about county jails. They were usually talked about as a financial liability.

They drive up property taxes, they’re difficult to operate and they’re expensive. For most counties, the jail is the single biggest budget item.

A single, unified system gives people a break on their property taxes – and they need it.

So, I am committed to putting this plan forward. We know we have a solution. And we know we must muster the political will to take action. There are no alternatives. We must move forward.

Thank you and good day.

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