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Community panel on jail is the right call

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler is right to forge ahead with a community panel that will look at the details of operating a new jail with the hope of convincing Talent and Ashland city council members to put the matter before their voters next May. Initial plans for a county-wide vote on the November ballot were sidelined when leaders of the two cities balked at including their communities in a county-wide taxing district to build and pay for a new jail.

The existing 315-bed jail has not been adequate to meet the county’s needs for years, and it cannot be expanded into a modern, efficient facility. The county has purchased an ideal piece of land for a new jail, and is putting up $66 million from its reserves toward the $166 million cost.

The county is proposing a taxing district rather than a one-time bond levy because a taxing district would provide a dedicated source of funding to cover operating expenses. The tax rate would be 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

While the cost was one of the factors driving opposition from Talent and Ashland councilors, many expressed the opinion that jailing offenders would not address the root causes of crime: alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, homelessness and lack of economic opportunity.

In the best of all possible worlds, tax dollars would address all those issues, and crime would disappear, or dwindle to the point that a new jail would not be necessary. But we must live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. In the real world, people commit crimes that victimize others: burglary, theft, robbery, assault — and the community needs to be able to jail those people to protect the rest of us.

Yes, many of those crimes are fueled by drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and other factors that need to be addressed. But the county is not locking people up for being drug- or alcohol-dependent, it is locking them up for committing crimes.

A modern, well-designed jail with adequate space to meet the needs of county of nearly 220,000 people would be able to provide the mental health and substance abuse treatment that offenders need. The existing jail functions as a processing facility where arrestees are booked and released because there is no room to hold them.

Sickler envisions a community panel that would include city officials, mental health and addiction treatment providers and others. The panel could help generate the comprehensive approach city councilors said they wanted to see before supporting the jail proposal.

Time is of the essence. Construction costs are only going up, and the longer it takes to get this proposal to the ballot, the more expensive it will be.

Putting the measure on the ballot is no guarantee it will pass. But if city leaders can be convinced of the need, they can help convince voters to support it, too.