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Cities, take heed: A new jail is crucial

Jackson County needs a new jail. And every incorporated city within its borders needs to get on board.

Sheriff Nate Sickler is proposing a service district covering the entire county that would collect property taxes to build and then operate the new jail. The first step is for the county’s 11 incorporated cities to agree to put the district before their voters.

Sickler has developed a detailed plan to build and staff a new facility that would provide enough space to keep criminals in jail and stop the revolving door caused by early releases. The current jail opened in 1981 and was at capacity almost immediately. Overcrowding has been an issue since 1985, when inmates sued the county over conditions there. The settlement requires the jail staff to release prisoners on a daily basis to stay in compliance. Modifications have allowed the jail to house 300 inmates, but early releases put prisoners back on the street to commit new crimes, and prevents any realistic drug or alcohol treatment to help offenders break the cycle.

In 2017, the county booked 14,000 people, but half of those were released before they could appear in court or post bail. The result is a criminal population that does not fear being locked up. Why would they be afraid? They know they’re likely to be released in a matter of hours.

The county’s population in 1981 was 134,546. Today, it is 215,000 and growing. Our jail must grow with it to keep residents safe.

The proposed jail would house 640 to 700 inmates, but would have a total of 800 beds. It would be designed to allow for future expansion — not an option with the existing jail.

The county is pledging $66 million from its reserves toward the construction cost, in addition to the $6 million it already spent to acquire land on Highway 62. The rest of the $166 million project would come from the special taxing district that would levy a maximum of 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a house assessed at $250,000 would pay $210 a year. That’s assessed value, which is generally less than a property’s market value.

A survey of a little over 300 county residents last year indicated voters would not support a levy of $1.09 per $1,000 for a 1,000-bed jail. County officials listened. The proposal is now an 800-bed jail for less than $1 per $1,000.

That rate depends on everyone in the county participating. It is crucial for the cities to agree to include their residents in the proposed district.

If not everyone is on board, the tax rate would have to be higher to raise the same amount of money.

A new jail would benefit everyone in the county. And all should pay their fair share.

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