Inmate Crisis Ignored by Area Legislators For Too Long ~ VALLEY PATRIOT EDITORIAL (9-16)


The Valley Patriot hosted two debates in the Essex County Sheriff’s race last month. 


During the Democratic Party candidate debate, superintendent of the Middleton jail, Michael Marks, explained that the Sheriff’s Department needs more than $71M to operate. He also explained that the legislature only gave them $50M last year as they had to keep going back to the state for supplemental budgets.

Throughout both of these debates it was unanimous among the candidates that the following facts are true:

* Essex County has the highest intake of prisoners than any other county in the state.

* The Essex County Sheriff’s Department has had their funding cut while other counties with declining incarceration rates continue to be level funded or get more.

* The largest need for detox units in the state is in Essex County.

* Women are sent to Framingham State prison regardless of their offense or classification because there are no local beds for females.

* The new detox beds have decreased the number of beds available for prisoners.

* Essex County jails and prisons are so overcrowded that people are sent home early to save space.

All of that being true, the eyes of the Merrimack Valley are now being opened to the fact that the financial needs of the Essex County Sheriff’s department have been ignored and dismissed by our local legislators for far too long.

Every year at budget time we receive hundreds of press releases from local senators and representatives bragging about how they managed to get state funding set aside for local groups and social programs … from substance abuse, to ballet dancing.

But we never see an effort by our legislators to address the issue of funding our inmate over-population at the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.

That has to change.

When prisoners are sent home early, our safety, and the safety of police and corrections officers are put at risk, and the entire system breaks down.

It seems odd that our very safety has not been a priority for our local reps. and senators, but there it is. There’s no disputing it. $50M is a far cry from $71M.

We would add that the experts we talked to say that the $71M sought for last year’s sheriff’s budget is a bare-bones minimum to deal with the current increasing pre-trial population.

We are calling on local legislators to stop buying political support in our communities by getting state funding for things like “green job training” and cultural organizations (to name a few) and prioritize the safety of the people in their districts.

Sure, prison funding is not sexy and it probably doesn’t fit into the narrative of the Republican or Democrat party’s red meat issues.

But, being an elected official means dealing with the hard issues that have no political payoff. It’s called doing your job, and lately our local legislators haven’t been doing it.

If local reps and senators continue to ignore this problem and make the Essex County Sheriff’s Department beg for crumbs every year, someone is going to get killed.

We say, an immediate forum should be held among local legislators to figure out how they can work across party lines to increase the funding for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department. We would even volunteer to run such a forum.

We also believe a robust discussion needs to take place on how to handle the increased need for detox centers in Essex County without affecting the lack of space for prisoner and pre-trial detainees in the Sheriff’s Department.

As Anne Manning Martin said during the Republican debate, if an elected official makes something a priority, it gets done.

Tell your local legislators to make it a priority before it’s too late.