Penobscot County Jail. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

A new jail in Bangor will cost a significant amount of money. So, elected officials are right to be wise stewards of the community’s financial resources. But, it is distressing to see the needs of the people who will be held at the new jail — people who live and work in our community — take a back seat to continued efforts to reduce the cost of the new facility.

Again this week, Penobscot County commissioners will look for ways to keep the costs “reasonable.” Even as the need for a new facility is urgent, we urge the commissioners to have a fuller discussion of what type of jail — and what services will be provided there — will best serve the needs of the community. Once that question is answered, then costs should be considered.

Earlier this year, the Penobscot County Jail Advisory Committee, for the second time, recommended a 300-bed facility that was estimated to cost $65 million, money that will come from a bond that must be approved by county voters. That was the same recommendation the committee made to county commissioners in 2018, one that commissioners endorsed unanimously.

Amid concern that Penobscot County residents would not support such a price tag for the facility, commissioners told the committee to come up with a proposal for a new or modified jail at the lower cost of $20 million to $30 million. The advisory committee said that was the wrong approach and stuck with the more expensive proposal.

County commissioners still sought a less expensive alternative. In June, they asked a local architecture firm to design a 250-bed facility, which was estimated to cost about $45 million. Since then, the commission has met behind closed doors to discuss the project. Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

“One of the reasons this is taking so long is that we are trying to get the cost as reasonable as we can,” Peter Baldacci, chairman of the county commission, told the county’s budget committee on Tuesday.

Being frugal with the public’s money is a good quality in elected officials. Shortchanging a needed public project, however, is sometimes the least frugal choice.

We understand the reluctance of county commissioners to propose a much larger — and more costly — jail to county residents, who will vote on whether to support a bond to pay for construction. Many commissioners rightly fear that county voters will reject the plan. But, there is a danger that voters won’t support the project because county commissioners are spending so much time talking about the pricetag instead of the necessity and benefits of a new facility.

We also share concerns that building a larger jail will ease the pressure on policymakers, corrections officials and others to continue to find and develop ways to reduce the number of people held in Maine’s jails who would be better served in other settings and programs.

However, there is currently a compelling need for a new, larger facility. County commissioners should focus on explaining this need to their fellow citizens rather than repeatedly trying to pare back plans for a new jail in order to satisfy skeptical voters.

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. In addition, because it is overcrowded, the jail pays other county jails to house about 50 of its inmates each day. The county has budgeted $780,000 in 2020 for this. Keeping these inmates in Bangor will allow for increased continuity in mental health and substance use treatment, education and other services. It will also keep them closer to family and other support networks, and it will save money.

The proposed new jail is bigger — and expensive — not only because of added beds, but because of the need for better services.

County jails are often the frontlines in caring for Mainers with mental health needs and those who are dealing with substance use 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.

Penobscot County needs a new jail — one that will better serve the inmates and the staff who work with them. This does not negate the need for additional, better alternatives to incarceration for a growing number of Mainers who should have access to services and support rather than spending time in jail.

The size and cost of that new facility should be dictated by inmate and staff needs, not the thriftiness of county commissioners.