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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Who is housed in our county jail?

The “jail book,” the register of persons arrested and detained in a jail or prison, is an open record. If properly maintained, it records the name of the detainee, date of incarceration, the charge(s), amount of bail (if any is set), date of release or transfer to another facility, and in the latter case the name of that facility. The jail book must be open to public scrutiny to safeguard against secret detention, the “disappearing” of people by law enforcement.

Many jurisdictions in Oregon have put their jail books online. Jackson County is among them. The url is https://inmate.jacksoncounty.org/. Given the accelerating controversy over the proposal to build a costly new county jail that would expand capacity from the current 315 to 896, it struck me as useful to see who is being lodged in the jail.

I conducted my investigation this past Monday. I counted 322 inmates, seven over legal capacity, thus affirming the claim that the present facility is overcrowded. But the related issue is whether we need to be jailing as many people as we do. In particular, should we use the criminal justice system to address the problems caused by mental illness and chemical dependency? Much of the opposition to the proposed jail has focused on the former. The area chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, among others, is on record in opposition. There are no parallel advocacy groups for the chemically dependent here, but my long-time readers know that several times I have condemned our disastrous “War on Drugs” and maintained that dependency on substances such as heroin and methamphetamines should be regarded as a public health challenge just as we regard dependency on nicotine and alcohol.

I examined 177 individual records — slightly over half — to learn the charges. It was not possible to determine who was arrested for conduct stemming from mental illness. When the police are called to handle disruptive behavior by a mentally ill person, they charge them with crimes like resisting arrest or criminal trespass. So, I cannot say by how much we could reduce the jail population if our county were to deal with such incidents in the humane and constructive ways that Lane County and many other jurisdictions have adopted.

Drug violations are crimes, however, and so examination of the book was helpful. Of the 177 inmates in my sample, 54 have been charged with drug offenses. If one adds to that number those not charged with possession but with violations such as DUI and theft motivated by their addictions, at least 40% of the population are there because they are chemically dependent. Retired county judge Patricia Crain told me it was 80%.

Few are being held only for possession. There are a host of related charges, such as violation of probation, failure to appear at court dates, or providing an arresting officer with false information. Strung-out people aren’t law-abiding, although with the exception of “assault on an officer” (a parallel to resisting arrest), crimes against persons aren’t usually among the charges.

Drug use in our nation is not declining, and as long as most recreational drugs are illegal, neither will drug-related crime. If Jackson County keeps itself locked into the box our approach to drugs has constructed, it will have to keep constructing more boxes to lock up its residents. Whose interests will that serve? Not the addicts, not the other victims of their desperation, and not the taxpayers.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.