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Unfortunately, it was not a big surprise that state corrections officials cited overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail in their threat to not renew the facility’s license earlier this month. The Bangor jail has too long operated over its allowed capacity because it has too long functioned as a mental health facility and detox center while these needed services remain in short supply in the state.
In addition, a large number of jail inmates are being held before any court proceedings to determine their guilt, simply because they don’t have the money to pay relatively small fines and fees, or because appropriate alternatives do not exist or don’t have capacity.
The jail, of course, shouldn’t operate beyond its license limits. However, reducing the number of inmates in the jail will take commitments from people far beyond the Bangor building.
“The reasons for overcrowding are complex and not the sole responsibility of the sheriff,” Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton told the Bangor Daily News this week. “The judicial system, local law enforcement, mental health services, the Maine Department of Corrections, municipal and county governments all play a role in how many people are under county’s supervision.”
He’s absolutely right, and the fix will take commitments from a wide array of government officials — such as police chiefs, district attorneys, judges, mental health professionals and county commissioners.
The problem is that many of these fixes can take time. Morton and others have been discussing solutions to the overcrowding at the county jail for years. A new, larger jail was even proposed. (It is now on the backburner after a lot of opposition.) Without action from both the sheriff’s office and these other entities, the problem won’t be permanently fixed, which is bad for inmates, jail staff and local taxpayers.
The jail in Bangor is licensed to hold 157 people. During a Department of Corrections inspection in early August, 212 inmates were held there. An additional 24 Penobscot County inmates were being held at other county jails.
Last week, the state Department of Corrections gave the county 90 days to reduce the overcrowding.
Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci stressed that the county is considering a range of options to reduce the jail population, and also working with a wide range of other government agencies to do so.
“At this point, we’re working on all fronts to try to address the issue, and the state is working with us,” Baldacci said on Wednesday in a voicemail to the BDN editorial board.
“Obviously, we’re working with … the police departments to reduce unnecessary arrests and detentions and with the court to facilitate getting sentencing and cases resolved more promptly, which has not been occurring. But, we’re hopeful the pace will improve,” Baldacci said.
A plan, which the county has presented to state officials, includes a comprehensive list of needed changes. The list starts with working with the judicial system to reduce the number of people held at the jail while they await court hearings, a problem that was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, which disrupted court operations. These people represent, on average, 70 percent of the jail’s population. A new state law that eliminates cash bail for some non-violent misdemeanor offenders could also help.
Jail administrators have already talked with local police departments about reducing the number of people brought to the jail. Increased use of pretrial services, inmate furloughs and boarding at other jails and prisons are also on the list.
The plan also calls for more work with the state mental health system to address a chronic shortage of space in mental health facilities for inmates who need treatment, not incarceration.
A new item under consideration is the use of a mobile unit to house some inmates. The unit, from a private contractor, would not be available for months.
We understand why a mobile unit may be an attractive option, especially given the short timetable to meet the Department of Corrections re-licensing deadline. But we are wary of simply moving inmates from the cramped, 161-year-old jail to a cramped trailer-like unit. This feels more like a change than an improvement.
Likewise, construction of a new jail needs further discussion, but that is a potential long-range solution, not something that would address the jail’s immediate problem.
Focusing on diverting more people to more appropriate alternatives to incarceration, as the sheriff’s plan prioritizes, is the best response, for both the short and long term.