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Maine city concerned about inmates' early releases at overcrowded county jail

Penobscot County Jail (WGME)
Penobscot County Jail (WGME)
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BREWER (BDN) -- Brewer city councilors are concerned that potentially dangerous people are being released from the county jail in Bangor because it has no space for them.

City Councilor Jerry Goss said at a Tuesday council meeting that he has asked the city manager to request a meeting with Sheriff Troy Morton and Penobscot County commissioners, who oversee the Penobscot County Jail, to discuss the overcrowding of the jail.

People whom police have arrested in Brewer recently have been released almost immediately following their arrests because of a lack of space at the jail, Brewer police Chief Jason Moffitt said in a letter sent last week to City Manager Stephen Bost.

[Maine jail risks losing its license due to overcrowding]

“Repeat offenders are being released despite multiple offenses including bail violations,” he wrote, citing overcrowding at the jail as the culprit.

In one case last week, a Brewer officer had arrested someone for violating bail who already had nine active sets of bail conditions stemming from previous arrests, Moffitt said.

“They need to do something yesterday,” Goss said.

The 161-year-old Penobscot County Jail on Hammond Street has seen chronic overcrowding over the years, and the county has weighed a handful of plans to either build a new jail or add onto the existing facility.

Last month, the Maine Department of Corrections, which licenses county jails, gave county officials until the end of November to get the Bangor jail’s inmate numbers down to 157, the number of inmates it is licensed to hold.

The Penobscot County Jail held 188 inmates as of Wednesday, or around 120 percent of its capacity, according to Morton.

One solution the sheriff has floated is the use of mobile jail units.

The jail has also entered into agreements with other county jails to hold Penobscot County inmates. And Morton has said the jail plans to use early release and furloughs more often to reduce inmate numbers.

Most of the people being held haven’t been convicted of a crime, said George Shaler, a University of Southern Maine criminologist who has studied the Penobscot County Jail.

“They’re there because they can’t pay their bail, or they haven’t been brought before a judge to determine whether they can get out on bail, or they’ve committed a violent crime and they’re being held awaiting trial,” Shaler said.

[Penobscot County Jail dealing with overcrowding]

Morton has cited a large backlog of criminal cases at the Penobscot Judicial Center as a major contributor to the overcrowding. That backlog grew especially quickly in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties as courts scaled back their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the Department of Corrections last month, he also cited the limited availability of mental health services for inmates who qualify.

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The Bangor jail has also struggled with staffing. Morton told county commissioners last week that the jail was functioning without a quarter of its staff due to vacancies and medical leaves. Overcrowding has made the jobs of corrections officers more stressful, he said.

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