PENOBSCOT COUNTY, Maine — Overcrowding has been a concern at the Penobscot County Jail for years. Many say the pandemic has made the situation go from bad to worse. Now, city officials are calling on Penobscot County Commissioners to take action.
The entire Brewer City Council attended the weekly Penobscot County Commissioners' meeting last week, along with Brewer Mayor Michele Daniels and Brewer Director of Public Safety Jason Moffitt.
Daniels said some people who should be arrested are walking free because the jail is overcapacity, and there is no room to spare.
Moffitt said when officers make arrests, they're being forced to reach out to jails in other counties to see if they have room for additional inmates. Officers are also cutting back on arrests due to the lack of space at the jail, and repeat offenders are catching on.
"There was a subject we'd been looking for, for some time. He'd been committing numerous thefts around Brewer, felony thefts. He had a warrant for his arrest due to our cases. He was running from a scene. We ended up taking him into custody, and when we arrested him, he expressed he was surprised that he was going to jail because he thought the jail was closed," Moffitt said.
Jerry Goss is one of the Brewer city councilors who spoke up at the meeting.
"We started this conversation 6-8 years ago, and I was at the original meeting asking for the same thing that I asked for this time," Goss said.
The councilors and other city officials are asking for action. They want more space at the jail, whether it be an entirely new facility or an addition made to the current one. They also want to see more services to help people struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders.
Peter Baldacci is one of the three commissioners for Penobscot County. He said there is a plan in place to address these concerns, and it is high on their priority list.
"We're talking with jails that have capacity like Somerset and Two Bridges in Wiscasset to work out arrangements to handle some of our inmates to reduce the pressure," Baldacci said.
Boarding inmates at other jails is a short-term solution, but he said they are also working on plans for a long-term solution.
"We're looking at keeping the population of the jail below 150, renovating the jail and using COVID funds where appropriate for air handling, for safety, because we've had outbreaks, and then building an addition onto the jail," Baldacci said.
Baldacci also said the commissioners are looking into diversion programs so that people don't have to go to jail unless it's absolutely necessary to send them there.
Goss said the court system is only compounding the overcrowding issue at the jail.
"Our court system is woefully slow. The majority of the people sitting in the jail right now are people waiting to go to trial," Goss said.
But, Goss said it's up to the state to address issues within the court system.
Daniels said their call to action for the commissioners doesn't end here.
"We will be in touch frequently to make sure things are progressing, and we will make sure that they are in touch with us," Daniels said.
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