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The choice is not better treatment or a jail

Opponents of the proposed new Jackson County Jail are correct when they argue that more mental health treatment is needed in our community. They are also correct when they argue that a jail is not the best place for people who are suffering from mental illness. But that does not mean Jackson Country does not need a new, much larger jail. It does.

Advocates for the mentally ill will be the first to tell you that mental illness is not a crime, and that most mentally ill people are not a danger to the public. That is absolutely true. But no one is suggesting that mentally ill people should be put in jail only for being mentally ill, or so they can receive care.

Jails are for people who have committed crimes or are accused of having committed crimes. Those people need to be held in jail until their cases are heard or their sentences served — especially if releasing them would pose a threat to public safety.

If the people held in jail need mental health counseling and/or treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, those services should be provided, and will be, if the new jail is built and equipped as planned.

The existing jail cannot provide those services because there is not enough space, and those who need the services are not in custody long enough because jail staff is forced to release people to keep the facility under its court-ordered population cap. That means that people get released who are a threat to public safety.

Increasing the availability of mental health treatment and services to those who are not in the criminal justice system is necessary, but it is a separate issue from the need for a new jail. It would be nice if, as some argue, providing more mental health treatment would keep people from committing crimes and reduce the need for jail beds.

Certainly, our community should do a better job of responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis without involving the police or the jail if possible. But even if that happens, it won’t mean an adequate jail isn’t needed.

The choice is not more treatment or a new jail. We need both.

This is especially true when it comes to substance abuse, which fuels far more crime than mental illness. Addicts who commit crimes need to be in jail, preferably a jail that can give them the treatment they need to break the cycle of addiction. They need to be in jail to protect the community at large.

Being addicted to drugs is not, by itself, a crime, beyond possessing an illegal substance. Being mentally ill is not a crime. Being homeless is not a crime.

Building a new jail will not solve any of these problems. It’s not intended to. It is intended to provide a secure place to put people who commit crimes against people and property. The existing jail was too small when it opened more than three decades ago, and it is woefully inadequate to serve a county that is now much larger and continuing to grow.