BEL AIR -- With its jail nearly filled to capacity, Harford County is considering establishing a home detention program in which low-risk prisoners would be required to wear electronic-monitoring bracelets.
The program is being considered because there has been a steady increase in the number of inmates housed at the Harford County Detention Center in Bel Air over the past three years, and the county has no immediate plans to expand the jail or build a new one.
If implemented, the program would be similar to those already operated by Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery, Washington, Talbot and Wicomico counties, said a state Division of Correction spokesman, Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley.
Maj. E. Dale Zepp, director of the Harford Detention Center, said"I'm in favor of it as a last resort. We have a growing population in the county, more trials and more people being incarcerated. That last resort I think will probably come within the next year. It's getting close now, but we'll deal with it."
Capacity at the 17-year-old jail is 272 inmates; currently there are 246 prisoners. About half are serving sentences of less than 18 months, with the others either incarcerated as part of a work-release program or for having failed to post bond while awaiting trial in the Harford County Circuit Court.
County officials said the increase in the jail's population was caused by a dramatic population increase brought on by the growth boom in the county and by more efficient law enforcement. Those factors also have also produced a backlog on the Circuit Court docket.
"The problem right now is manageable," said Carl B. Klockars, a University of Delaware criminologist and county consultant on law enforcement. "It is probable in the coming years that the inmate population at the detention center will grow too big to accommodate.
"We have only two alternatives to easing overcrowding -- home detention or expansion of the detention center," he said. "If the trend continues, it's clear both are going to have to happen."
The 10-year capital improvements program of outgoing County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr. does not include money for expanding the jail.
However, the county is doing a study of the feasibility of building a 115-inmate halfway house on the grounds of the jail, which would give the administration of Executive-elect Eileen M. Rehrmann another option to consider. That facility, however, is seen as primarily for transient prisoners.
George Harrison, leader of Ms. Rehrmann's transition team, said it was too early to discuss where her administration would stand on the issues of home detention or expanding the jail.
The Harford County Council, which would have to approve any home detention program, may get suggestions as early as next month from a commission studying detention center issues.
Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson declined to say whether he would support home detention, but added that the county "needs to consider alternatives to ease inmate overcrowding."