“Maine faces a severe prisoner population problem. The number of inmates incarcerated in … county jails has grown far beyond expectations in recent years, stressing the capacity of existing facilities and showing no sign of slowing down.”
This statement could have been made yesterday by a county sheriff or state correctional official.
It was not. Rather, it is from the opening page of a 2004 report by Report of the Commission to Improve the Sentencing, Supervision, Management and Incarceration of Prisoners.
More than 15 years later, another task force on holding inmates who are awaiting trial has been reconvened. A task force that looked at improving the county jail funding system recently completed a report. Meanwhile, the number of inmates who have mental health and substance use concerns continues to swell.
And, this week, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton told county officials that his facility would soon spend more than $1 million a year to house inmates at other facilities because the Bangor jail routinely exceeds its capacity. County officials are finalizing details on a proposed new, larger jail. We support a new facility with an emphasis on better meeting inmate needs. Not to hold more of them.
Suffice it to say, not much has changed in 15 years except for the increasing stress on county jails and their staffs. The overcrowding and lack of alternatives also harms inmates and their families.
An easy answer, of course, is to send fewer people to jail. While it sounds simplistic, it is the one answer that makes the most sense. Getting there, of course, is the difficulty. It will take time and money — and resolve.
Community treatment facilities — which were envisioned long ago by an agreement that shrank the state’s mental institutions — will need to be built and funded. More than three times as many seriously mentally ill Americans are in jails and prisons than they are in hospitals, according to a 2010 study done for the National Sheriff’s Association and Treatment Advocacy Center.
More judges need to be hired to move cases through the courts more quickly. More than two-thirds of county jail inmates in Maine are awaiting court dates. That’s nearly a two-fold increase since 1993. Many can’t afford bail, highlighting the need for changes to Maine’s bail system.
Maine has studied these problems for decades. It has a roadmap for solving them. What’s needed now is the political will — and yes, the money — to put recommendations made by several task forces and reviews into action.
It is important to note that this growing stress on our corrections system comes at a time when crime is down in Maine.
The total number of crimes reported in Maine dropped for the seventh straight year in 2018, according to data the Maine Department of Public Safety released in October. The total number of reported crimes has fallen by more than 40 percent in Maine since 2009.
Yet, in Bangor, the number of inmates in the county jail continues to exceed capacity. The Penobscot County jail has a state-approved capacity of 157 inmates, which it frequently exceeds. The Maine Department of Corrections has said it will soon enforce that limit to meet standards, which led Morton to warn Penobscot County Commissioners to expect higher bills for boarding out prisoners.
The jail has averaged about 175 inmates in recent days. In addition, the county has paid other correctional facilities to house about 55 inmates, a practice called “boarding out.” Nearly 100 people sentenced to serve time in the jail are living in the community on pretrial release under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services.
While Penobscot County has the most chronic overcrowding problem, this is a statewide concern that requires statewide action.
Holding fewer people to jail is at the heart of the solution.