Op-Ed: Gov. Janet Mills is shifting COVID-19 costs to Maine counties

Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a Maine CDC press conference.

Following is an op-ed from Rep. Richard Pickett of East Dixfield.

On May 15th Governor Mills issued an executive order delegating authority to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to prohibit the transfer of any or all inmates from any county or municipal detention facility to a state facility.  The timing of this order is both interesting and disturbing. As of the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, all our county sheriffs have voluntarily held prisoners in their county facilities to help protect against the spread of the virus. The Governor cites the need to “temporarily stop the intake of inmates by the Department of Corrections from counties.”  Since no intakes have taken place for three months, why the new order?

She also cites that county jails and municipal facilities have tested positive or exhibited symptoms of COVID19. If that is true, then she should release the data showing it. As of this writing, the CDC has made no mention of a case at a county facility.  Currently, the only positive test has come at the state facility in Windham, and since there have been no transfers, that inmate did not come from a county jail. Again, why the order?

I certainly appreciate the Governor trying to look out for the health and well-being of the staff at our state facilities, however, it has been our county correctional staff that has been placed at risk. The county staffs are doing their jobs, and they are voluntarily doing the job for the state facilities by not transferring inmates. The very timing of this order seems strange. As I said, the sheriffs have been voluntarily withholding transfers of inmates. Now that the courts are opening up, more prosecutions can be expected. The need for more space at county jails is going to rapidly grow. The Sheriffs recognized this changing circumstance, and they voted to work with the Department of Corrections to resume transfers.  Hours after this vote, the Governor issued her Executive Order banning these transfers. Every Governor should know that it takes a working relationship between the Sheriffs and the DOC, one of voluntary cooperation, to effectively meet the needs of the state, the inmates, and the staff. This order undermines this relationship by shifting the cost from the state facilities to county facilities. The Governor has allowed the courts to resume their activities, but through her sudden order, she has prevented the costs historically and correctly borne by the state to be forced onto the counties. It is a state responsibility to house prisoners convicted of a felony with a sentence of nine months and a day or more.  Using emergency powers designed for health emergencies to shift costs to the county is dead wrong. Again, why the order and why now?

We all understand that the policy decisions by the Governor have resulted in a huge loss of state revenue.  Some projections at the state level predict a $1.2 billion shortfall.  Starting to fill that gap by shifting costs on to counties is an effectively corrupt solution. Governments at all levels are seeing reduced revenues, and the loss of employment and businesses mean the taxpayers who provide the funding…for all levels of government… cannot afford more taxes. Let’s not play games.  Let’s not shift costs and call it “public health.” It is time for the state to begin taking the prisoners they are obligated to house so that the counties can process new convictions and the courts can begin opening and doing their jobs. Further, I am told that Maine has received, and the Governor has in her possession, 1.25 BILLION DOLLARS. This money is from the feds, and was earmarked in federal legislation to help local governments through the pandemic. Why is this money not being used? The Governor is paying state correction staff $5.00 per hour in “hazardous duty pay.” That is all well and good, however, county officers have received nothing. 

The timing and the very creation of this very poorly thought out executive order need explanation. Is the Governor trying to force the release of prisoners and promote the non-prosecution of arrested offenders, like some other states are promoting? Is the Governor attempting to force tax increases at the local and county level so that she can keep the federal 1.25 BILLION to pay her bloated state budget even though it was targeted at the locals? Why has the Governor not included county jail workers in her generous hazardous duty plan? Why has the Governor reversed decades of state tradition and cooperation between local and state aspects of our universal corrections system?

Lastly, it is time to open Maine, and the Governor is at long last moving to open. We need to open up our court system and return justice and honest law and order to all of Maine. Corrections officers in Maine, at all levels, deserve our respect and admiration. Executive orders such as this one have no place in our state. The Governor is using her perceived emergency power to transform a system that has worked well for years. She is wrong. This order needs to be reversed.

Representative Richard Pickett (R-Dixfield) is the House Lead on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. 

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