Radical ideas are bold, original, provocative. Radical ideas call for building barricades in the streets, then storming those same barricades. Radical ideas require decisive action, no matter how stupid that action may be.
The one thing radical ideas have never been is wimpy.
Radical bomb-throwers don’t first check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to make sure their explosives won’t go off prematurely and blow off their fingers. Radical speakers don’t run their scripts by editors and lawyers to make sure they won’t offend or slander anyone. Radical activists pay no attention to their clothes, their manners or their personal hygiene.
They may be rude. They may be smelly. They may be obnoxious. But they’re not wimpy.
Oddly enough, the world’s first wimpy radicals are the products of an administration that’s been accused of virtually every transgression against decency that exists – except wimpiness. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been crude, misleading, thoughtless, bullying, blustering, ignorant and just plain wrong. But never wimpy.
So, I’m at a loss to explain the blob of flaccidity that constitutes the latest plan by LePage’s Department of Corrections to reform county jails. I’ve seen sturdier stuff come out of a Jell-O package.
No one disputes that the state’s jail system needs reform. It’s underfunded, poorly administered and badly situated. It’s overseen by county sheriffs, many of whom are political hacks more concerned with getting re-elected than maintaining an effective and efficient corrections program. It’s a bumbling reminder of how lawbreakers were dealt with in colonial times, except that Constitution thing prevents us from throwing them in stocks.
County jails are an ideal example of an institution sorely in need of radical ideas. But instead of unleashing bearded subversives with bayonets, the corrections department has offered up a tepid mixture of ersatz-reform mixed with a sizeable spritz of the status quo. Under its proposal, the jails would change about as much as Donald Trump’s views on sexually harassing women.
Here’s the plan: Instead of 15 county jails (two counties share one jail, apparently because they have a shortage of criminals), we’d have somewhat fewer. How somewhat? It’s not clear. The decision to close jails would be left up to three regional boards (one each for northern, central and southern Maine) made up of LePage appointees, county appointees, people who just happened to be hanging around in the meeting room at the time, and escaped inmates (that last group is likely to have all the best ideas). Each board would have the power to close a couple of jails in their regions for reasons they’re allowed to make up as they go along.
This would save lots of money, so long as you don’t count the added expense of having deputies transport arrestees to the remaining jails, assorted overcrowding problems and extended power struggles among sheriffs over who goes where. Once the kinks are worked out, the new jail system promises to provide all the inadequacies of the current setup, but at a higher cost to taxpayers.
Radical – in a wimpy way – and, yeah, dopey.
If LePage’s minions had the intestinal fortitude of true revolutionaries, they’d recognize that the problem with county jails isn’t so much the jail part as the county part. Counties are archaic fiefdoms that perform no useful function that couldn’t be better handled at either the municipal or state level of government. Probate courts should be abolished and their functions transferred to the district courts. Registries of deeds could be operated by larger cities and towns or the Secretary of State’s Office. The sheriffs could be replaced by state police. And the jails could be folded into the prison system.
That would leave the elected bumblers who oversee the counties with nothing to do except lock up their offices and disappear back into their undistinguished private lives. But only after they notify all residents of their respective counties about how much they’ll be saving on their property tax bills, which currently pay for most of county government.
Sure, many of the expenses of jails, registries and courts would have to be covered by broad-based state levies, such as the sales or income taxes. But without county government, the administrative costs of those services would vanish, since the state and municipalities already have adequate administrations in place to handle the jobs.
We’d pay less overall, and we’d pay it less painfully. Also, there’d be one less level of government to muck things up.
I admit that’s radical – too much so for wimps.
Don’t you wimp out. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take a deep breath, then email Al Diamon at email@example.com.