Jail proposal defeat doesn't end need
Jackson County voters have decisively rejected a proposed taxing district to build and operate a new jail. Opponents hail this as an opportunity to address the root causes of crime instead of building more jail space, but make no mistake: The inadequate jail that prompted the county to propose a new one is still inadequate. Just how inadequate has been made clear by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on jail operations.
The current jail, built in 1981, has a capacity of 315 inmates. But the Sheriff’s Office has reduced that population to 215 to prevent COVID-19 from taking hold inside the facility.
They did this by releasing even more prisoners than before the pandemic. This means the lowest-risk inmates — those accused of nonviolent crimes — were turned loose, and now the jail population is down to the kind of prisoners no one wants to see back on the street. As Sheriff Nate Sickler put it recently, there are “no good choices.”
Another effect of the pandemic is an increase in the severity of domestic violence cases, as abusers stuck at home take out their frustration on their partners. Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan detailed the grim reality: The number of domestic violence calls to police were virtually unchanged or even dropped after the governor’s stay-at-home order, but the severity greatly increased. Victims are “close to being killed,” Community Works Executive Director Barbara Johnson said, citing victims suffering broken jaws, strangulation and, in one case, a miscarriage.
These are the offenders who are now behind bars — and potentially could be released because the jail has even less space to hold them than before the pandemic.
One of the arguments against the new jail service district in the Voters Pamphlet for the May 19 election stated, “Public safety is not at risk” and “The fact of the matter is that violent offenders are not being released.”
Even if that were true when it was written, it can no longer be guaranteed.
Opponents of a new jail argue that money should be spent instead on mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. Certainly more and better treatment is needed. But the thinking seems to be that this will somehow keep people from committing crimes and being sent to jail, eliminating the need for more than 315 jail beds in a county of 220,000 people.
Tell that to the domestic violence victim with a broken jaw, beaten nearly to death by her abuser. Tell that to victims of assault, rape, robbery, attempted murder.
It’s not an either/or choice. We need better outreach, counseling and treatment. And we also need enough jail space to keep truly dangerous people off the streets.
The existing jail wasn’t up to the task when it was built nearly 40 years ago, and it is even less so now.
The county will have to consider its options, and perhaps come back to voters with a scaled-down plan. But the need for a new jail isn’t going away. And as the population continues to grow, so will the need.