Editorial: Relieving pressure

The Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth is one of 15 county jails in Maine. That’s one for every county, except Sagadahoc and Lincoln, which share the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. Each jail has its own unique history and set of needs.

But there is one thing they have in common — though some more than others, all jails would benefit from fewer inmates.

According to numbers provided by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, the number of inmates held in Hancock County Jail on a typical day increased 21 percent between 2008 and 2018. And upward of three-quarters of these inmates were being held pre-trial. Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane told The Ellsworth American that the jail is licensed for 58 inmates, but was over capacity many times last year.

The Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee and other stakeholders are now working to find a permanent solution to the decade-old problems surrounding jail funding. Following the group’s first meeting, both the chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, and Randall Liberty, the state corrections commissioner, told the Bangor Daily News that much of the group’s focus should be on reducing the jail population.

They’re right.

The problem is at least 10 years in the making. With jail costs rising, Governor John Baldacci in 2008 capped the amount of county taxpayer dollars that could be used for funding. The new Board of Corrections was left on the hook for any budget increase.

However, the state never followed through. Costs kept increasing, but counties found it difficult to get additional state money.

The Legislature has provided relief here and there, but the structural problem persists. A series of bills aimed at the issue were considered last session, but lawmakers instead opted for a study group overseen by the criminal justice committee. It met for the first time last month.

Now, counties pay about 80 percent of jail costs while the state picks up the rest. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing the formula, but lawmakers will have to decide who pays for budget increases, and who gets to decide when those increases are necessary. There must be a mechanism that pushes jails to coordinate efforts to install best practices and find efficiencies.

Beyond that, however, the most effective route lawmakers can take is to advance policies that cut the number of jail inmates — and cutting the number of inmates means cutting the number of people held before trial.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of jail inmates have yet to be convicted of the crime in question. The same holds true in Maine, and while the overall jail population has fallen in the last decade, the number of inmates held pretrial has increased.

Why? The system relies too heavily on bail, and when defendants can’t afford it, they are left for days, weeks, even months waiting for adjudication.

Sometimes, too, people are arrested when they could be issued citations, or they are incarcerated for minor probation violations. Such incarcerations do not increase public safety; in fact, they may do the opposite.

Maine should cut back on the use of bail and expand pretrial release, as well as alternative housing and monitoring programs. In addition, more violators, when appropriate, should be pushed toward mental health and addiction treatment rather than jail. Treatment and re-entry programs should be expanded to cut down on recidivism.

A lot of these ideas came forward last legislative session, many of them in a bill that Warren crafted with help from sheriffs. Now is the time for the committee to figure how Maine can use them correctly.

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