The Penobscot County Jail. Credit: Gabor Degre

Penobscot County commissioners are right to be concerned about the price tag for a proposed $65 million new jail. But their desire to shrink the cost obscures the important rationale for the new facility.

The cost of a new jail, of course, is important. But the focus, as the new facility is planned and debated, must remain on what will allow the county to house and rehabilitate inmates in its custody.

The current jail, on Hammond Street in Bangor, is outdated and overcrowded, so a new jail is certainly needed.

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, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said.

On the financial side, because it is overcrowded, the jail 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 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 jail over 30 years, he said.

Bringing these prisoners back to Bangor will also bring the average daily jail population to nearly 250, which is closer to the 300-beds proposed for the new facility.

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

As commissioners and Bangor residents look at the need for and cost of a new jail, it is important to remember that jail services have changed over the years. County jails are often the frontlines in caring for Mainers with mental health needs and those who are dealing with substance abuse 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.

When Penobscot County decides to build a new jail, it does not alleviate the need for policymakers and lawmakers to address larger correctional issues.

On the average day, about two-thirds of the people held in Maine’s county jails are awaiting a court appearance. These pre-trial inmates have not been found guilty of a crime. Instead, many are being held in jail because of the slow pace of court cases and enactment of longer sentences so lawmakers can look tough on crime. Many Penobscot County inmates are being held for six months before a trial, often on drug charges. This is an improvement over a few years ago, Morton said. But more should be done to handle cases more quickly and lawmakers should assess whether required jail time lessens drug crime.

Diversion programs have also helped. Currently, 80 people who otherwise would be in the Penobscot County Jail are participating in pre-trial services. Such services allow men and women who have committed nonviolent crimes for the first or second time to freely work and attend school while being monitored, in exchange for community service work and counseling session, rather than waiting in jail for their court date. Participants, who must be referred to the services by a judge, pay for the programs.

Without these programs, more people would be jailed and the county would need an even larger facility.

Being financially prudent is important. But, in considering a new jail, commissioners must start by deciding what type of facility is needed to serve inmates, staff and the community, to which inmates will return when their sentences end. Setting an artificial price tag could leave the county with a jail that is inadequate soon after it is built.