The Penobscot County Jail in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

Being frugal with taxpayer money is a good quality in public officials. Shortchanging a needed public project, however, is sometimes the least frugal choice.

Such is the case with plans to construct a new jail for Penobscot County. We understand the reluctance of county commissioners to propose a much larger — and more costly — jail to county residents, who will vote on whether to support a bond to pay for construction. Many commissioners rightly fear that county voters will reject the plan.

We also share concerns that building a larger jail will ease the pressure on policymakers, corrections officials and others to continue to find and develop ways to reduce the number of people held in Maine’s jails who would be better served in other settings and programs.

However, there is currently a compelling need for a new, larger facility. County commissioners should focus on explaining this need to their fellow citizens rather than trying to pare back plans for a new jail in order to satisfy skeptical voters.

For the second time, a county advisory committee has recommended a 300-bed jail that will cost $65 million. Commissioners approved the plan last year, but then had second thoughts about its cost and asked the committee to consider a smaller new jail or modifications to the existing jail in downtown Bangor. The committee rejected that idea and again backed the $65 million plan.

Harry Sanborn of Alton is a member of the current advisory committee. He was also involved in planning the 1985 addition to the current Penobscot County Jail.

“It was obsolete when we opened the doors,” he said of the current jail at a February meeting. “I don’t want to be in that situation again.”

Neither should county commissioners nor county residents, who will pay for building the new facility through bonding.

Sanborn said he supports a 300-bed facility in part because an analysis prepared for the county last year projected that doing nothing and continuing to board out inmates who can’t be held at the already over capacity Penobscot County Jail is projected to cost about the same as the larger standalone facility over the course of 30 years.

Plus, Sanborn said, money now spent on housing and transporting these inmates can be spent to improve the services that inmates receive in the Bangor jail.

This is where the discussion should be focused — on the services that can help position inmates to leave jail as healthier, more productive members of society.

The state approved capacity of the Penobscot County Jail is 157, but it has housed an average daily population of about 190 over the past year. Inmates have been sleeping in rooms designed for educational services. Counseling sessions and inmate meetings with their attorneys are often held in hallways. Adult education programs are routinely displaced for video arraignments. The jail’s kitchen and laundry facilities are far too small. Staff spaces are cramped and ill equipped.

The proposed new jail is bigger — and expensive — not only because of added beds, but because of the need for better services.

County jails are often the frontlines in caring for Mainers with mental health needs and those who are dealing with substance use disorder. Many of these inmates need services that require them to be separated from other inmates. A properly designed new jail will provide the space for more effective delivery of these services.

Inmates increasingly have complex medical needs as well. The most recent proposal for a new facility includes space for 48 medical beds.

On the financial side, because it is overcrowded, the jail currently pays other county jails to house about 50 of its inmates each day, at a cost of about $1.7 million a year, according to Sheriff Troy Morton. This is about the same as Bangor would pay in debt service per year if it borrows the funds needed to build the proposed new $65 million jail over 30 years, he has said and the committee’s research has confirmed.

Keeping these inmates in Bangor will allow for continuity in mental health and substance use treatment, education and other services. It will also keep them closer to family and other support networks.

Penobscot County needs a new jail — one that will better serve the inmates and the staff who work with them. This does not negate the need for additional, better alternatives to incarceration for the growing number of Mainers who should have access to services and support rather than spending time in jail.

We believe the county, and state, can work on both.