BANGOR, Maine — Already well over its capacity of 157 inmates, the Penobscot County Jail is expected to get even more crowded, which has Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton worried.
The in-house population at the county lockup this week has been hovering around 200. And that doesn’t count the 64 inmates being boarded at other county jails and the 44 signed up with Maine Pretrial Services, a jail diversion program available to eligible defendants, Morton noted.
“These numbers are high, and we can expect them to peak in the next couple of days. I can look at the court docket and know ahead how many people are coming in and how many are going out, and there’s more coming in than going out” through Wednesday of next week, Morton said.
The overcrowding has become so severe that tensions inside the jail are running high, which is not good for inmates or staff, he said. He added that many inmates are sleeping on cots because there aren’t enough beds to go around.
“Something’s got to be done, and I know what I hear from my constituents in the community is that they want high-risk offenders incarcerated. They want those who should be treated treated, and they want those who are low-risk to be given opportunities and that’s exactly what we’re doing except for one piece … those that they want incarcerated, [we’re not able to pay] to have them incarcerated,” he said.
That is why Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins emailed his counterparts around Maine this week to see if any of them could help house Penobscot County inmates.
As it stands, the county jails in Aroostook, Piscataquis and Hancock counties have been boarding Penobscot County’s inmates at no cost in exchange for transportation services.
Collins and Morton said steps have been taken to minimize the number of people coming into the county jail. These include Maine Pretrial Services, a concerted effort to summon low-risk offenders rather than incarcerate them, and Refinement, a program that lets those who otherwise would be jailed for unpaid fines to work off what they owe through community service for area nonprofits.
“But regardless of all those great programs, our populations continue to soar,” Morton said.
“It’s not just the number of inmates we have,” he added. “It’s the complex issues that come with them, the mental health facilities that are empty, and now those folks are ending up in county jails.”
Morton said that while the overall crime rate in the area has dropped, violent crime has gone up, and many of those crimes are the result of substance abuse. He also cited an increase in the number of female inmates and a backlog in the court system that is keeping inmates behind bars for extended periods.
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy agreed.
“There are a number of cases where these defendants should be sentenced. They’ve been convicted, and they’re just sitting there awaiting sentencing, and if they were sentenced, they’d go off to Maine Correctional or Warren,” Almy said.
“And there are a number of other cases where defendants are stalling the case so they can stay in county jail, whereas if they’d be put on a trial list, they’d be pleading guilty and be sentenced,” he said.
“I got one guy who’s been in there for months, and he confessed to the crime,” he added.
Morton also noted county jail funding problems.
“The state clearly underfunded the system again and didn’t allow counties that needed to board inmates out any funds to pay counties that would be receiving them,” he said. “The problem is we have zero money [to cover the cost of boarding inmates elsewhere] and the law does not allow us to generate money to pay those boarding fees.”
Morton doesn’t blame other counties, noting that Penobscot County also would want to recover money spent on housing other counties’ inmates. He said the counties have been working together to try to solve the overcrowding program and will continue to do so.
“We’ve looked at every avenue that we have. We’ve addressed it with the courts. We’ve addressed it with the district attorney’s office. I don’t know if it’s that we talk about overcrowding so much that people don’t take it seriously, take it to heart,” Morton said.
Collins said the jail’s funding is based on its capacity of 157 inmates but that the reality is that the county is housing far more inmates than it is being reimbursed for.
Morton said this year’s jail budget totals $8.1 million. He pegged the potential shortfall at about $430,000.
Morton said that the funding shortage likely will be addressed through a supplemental funding request in the next legislative session, but that doesn’t begin until early next year.
“But we can’t wait for the next legislative session to have this addressed. We need some help or some support or direction from others,” he said.