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Just build it

Jackson Country officials are moving ahead with plans for a new jail, and not a moment too soon.

The need for more jail space didn’t happen overnight, and solving the problem won’t be accomplished with a snap of the fingers. Despite the claims of one candidate for sheriff, creating more jail beds isn’t as simple as raiding the county’s reserves to plop down temporary pods in the jail’s parking lot — although instant gratification can be attractive.

Nor is it true that the county’s plan to spend $100 million on a new jail “was already voted down,” as one confused letter writer told us.

The county surveyed 320 county residents earlier this year, and the results indicated voters would likely reject a tax levy of $1.09 per $1,000 assessed value to build a 1,000-bed jail. We praised county commissioners for not giving up on the project based on one survey using preliminary cost estimates, because the need for new jail space is undeniable.

The commissioners last week approved spending $6.5 million to purchase 47 acres of land across from the Sheriff’s Office headquarters that would be an ideal location for a new jail. The property is zoned heavy industrial, so a jail is a permitted use, requiring no rezoning. All utilities already are available. There are no residential neighborhoods nearby, eliminating the likelihood of opposition to a jail project. And the property is mostly vacant, eliminating the cost of demolition before starting construction. The Highway 62 bypass will have an off-ramp nearby.

The county still must persuade voters to support the project, but progress is being made on that front, too.

The plan now is to ask voters to approve a levy next year that would not start until 2020, when the existing bonds for library construction expire. Replacing the library levy with the jail levy would mean a net increase to taxpayers of about 60 cents per $1,000, well below the $1.09 figure floated earlier.

It’s possible the initial project could build a 700- or 750-bed jail, but with the kitchen, heating systems and other essential functions sized to serve an eventual count of 1,000 beds. More bed space could be added later, but kitchens and other infrastructure couldn’t be expanded because reinforced concrete does not allow for easy remodeling.

The existing jail, built in 1981, with its woefully inadequate 300-bed capacity, has been overcrowded for years, forcing the early release of prisoners on a daily basis. The result is a revolving door that turns arrestees back onto the street and makes it difficult to provide the mental health counseling and drug and alcohol treatment many offenders need because they are not behind bars long enough.

Crime is a major concern for Jackson County residents. Adequate jail space is essential to maintaining public safety, but it is not cheap. We are convinced that a new jail is vital to the county’s future prosperity and livability, and we will continue to support it.

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