BANGOR, Maine — Clifford John Sprague of Exeter has been jailed for his role in a 2012 Corinth convenience store burglary for almost three years.
Someday, he might even be sentenced for it.
Inside Maine’s county jail system, Sprague, 37, stands out as an example of why these facilities struggle with overcrowding and cost overruns. He has been in the system so long, the cost to taxpayers for housing him is now nearing $100,000.
Sprague is not unique in that he’s in jail awaiting sentencing. Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said his jail has an average daily population of 177, well above its capacity of 156. More than 100 of those inmates are like Sprague, awaiting final adjudication of their cases.
The situation has worsened to the point that Morton met recently with local judges and gave them a list of pre-conviction inmates at the jail as a reminder of why the wheels of justice must turn faster. On that day, he said, the jail housed 216 inmates; 142 awaited trial or sentencing.
There aren’t uniform reasons for why cases crawl through the courts. Circumstances are as varied as the crimes that landed people behind bars in the first place.
Sprague’s case, however, is unique because it outlines how a slow-moving justice system leads to problems for Maine’s jails. After being jailed for burglary, Sprague learned he was under federal investigation for Social Security fraud, so he agreed to postpone his state sentencing until he is sentenced in federal court.
He was just indicted on those federal charges this week.
During this entire period, Sprague’s case became essentially a blueprint of how an inmate facing both state and federal charges can work the system to remain in the — relative — comfort of a county jail and avoid serving time in a more demanding federal prison.
Sprague’s stay also defies the idea that lengthy stretches in jail only go to those who commit the most serious crimes.
“He’s been here longer than anyone, I think, even those charged with murder,” said Penobscot County Jail corrections officer Tim Dearing.
Sprague is listed as “pretrial” on the jail’s roster, even though he pleaded no contest on March 22, 2013, to charges of arson, burglary, aggravated criminal mischief and theft for his role in the burglary in Corinth.
Three others were arrested with Sprague within hours of the June 22, 2012, burglary. The quartet — Sprague was billed as the mastermind — reportedly backed a stolen pickup truck into the front doors of the A.E. Robinson convenience store, stole cigarettes and a lottery ticket dispenser, then set the stolen truck on fire to cover up the crimes.
Robert L. Mason, 31, of Corinna, Rosemary Peterson, 29, of Palmyra and Michael W. Chapman, 40, of Sanford all were charged with the same crimes as Sprague.
A jury convicted Chapman of all charges in April 2013 and he got 3½ years in prison. Peterson pleaded to burglary and theft, and received two years, with all but nine months suspended. Mason pleaded to criminal mischief, burglary and theft and was sentenced to three years in prison, all but four months suspended, plus two years of probation.
Yet while his accomplices are serving, or have served, their sentences, Sprague decided to take another route when he heard he might face federal charges by negotiating a deal with the district attorney, according to his attorney, Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor.
Sprague negotiated a deal with the state to hold off his sentencing during the federal investigation, said Tzovarras. On Wednesday, a federal grand jury in Bangor indicted Sprague on a charge of making fraudulent statements to obtain Social Security benefits.
In essence, Sprague chose to remain at the jail in order to get a concurrent sentence once charged federally, said Tzovarras.
Sprague declined to be interviewed by the BDN.
District Attorney R. Christopher Almy described Sprague’s situation as a “logistical problem” because of the lengthy federal investigation.
“We agreed to hold off on our sentencing so the state sentence could run concurrent with the feds,” said Almy, who indicated the prosecutor will seek a 12-year sentence for Sprague under a plea agreement, with the defense free to argue for less.
Tzovarras said such agreements are commonplace, although the circumstances of Sprague’s case are not.
“What made this case unusual is there were no federal charges at the time the state plea agreement was entered but only the potential for federal charges,” he said.
Sprague’s attorney for the federal charges is Matthew Erickson of Brewer, who said Thursday that he expects the federal case will be concluded before the end of the year, which is when Sprague’s sentencing on the state charges would go forward.
Both of Sprague’s attorneys are appointed. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCormack is prosecuting the federal case against him.
Now that the federal indictment has been handed up, things will move faster, according to Maine U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II.
“Once [cases] are filed, we’re then subject to the speedy trial clock,” Delahanty said recently. “We have 70 days [to get to trial], which is a lot faster than at the state level.”
While speedy trials are ideal, the long list of inmates awaiting trial or sentencing has been a bone of contention with jail officials trying to balance budgets and high jail populations.
The jail in Bangor is regularly overcrowded and struggling with a $560,000 budget shortfall, according to Sheriff Morton. The average cost of housing an inmate for a single day is $90.59.
Sprague, who arrived in Penobscot County Jail in 2012, has spent 1,057 days in custody as of Friday. That puts the total cost of his jail time at about $95,754, so far.
Not all of his days behind bars were in Bangor, however. Sprague has been boarded at Cumberland County Jail in Portland, Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft, the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and Two Bridges jail in Wiscasset.
Nor has Sprague been a model inmate. He was charged for his involvement in a May 13, 2013, fight with then-fellow inmate Nicholas Sexton, who was convicted of murder last May, that resulted in injuries to two corrections officers, Almy said.
Sprague was indicted in March 2014 on two counts of assault on an officer and one count of assault. That case remains pending, according to Almy.
To offset some of the pressure on the jail, Penobscot County and others in the state have initiated a pretrial services program for low-risk inmates, which allows them to be released until trial or sentencing.
Morton does not blame the courts for the long holding times for those awaiting trial. He realizes judges and prosecutors have heavy caseloads, and many things delay the process.
“This is not on the courts. We work as a team,” Morton said. “This was a way to communicate with the judges, and the courts have been very responsive to our concerns.”
He still, however, wanted them to see the dilemma county jails face on a daily basis.
In the meantime, Sprague is scheduled to make first appearance before federal Magistrate Judge John Nivison on May 19 at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor.
Until then, he remains in the Penobscot County Jail, waiting patiently for that final sentence.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.