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Services, cost argue for a new jail

A three-part series of stories last week delved into the issues of drug addiction and mental health treatment in the county jail and whether a new jail would help address those needs. The answer is yes to both. The third installment in the series looked at the cost to the community of early releases and the danger to the community posed by criminals who can’t be kept behind bars because the existing jail is too small.

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset. No one is suggesting that a new, larger jail should be built just to treat drug addiction and mental illness, neither of which are crimes by themselves.

Certainly, better community-based drug and mental health treatment is necessary. But it won’t address the issue of crimes committed against people and property by those struggling with substance abuse, mental illness or both.

Drug users who commit crimes punishable by jail time simply will not pursue treatment on their own without the consequence of jail time. Recovering drug addicts told Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous that the “catch-and-release” policy forced on the 315-bed county jail to avoid overcrowding provided no incentive for them to confront their behavior and make the changes necessary to stop using drugs and committing crimes. Only after their crimes escalated in number and severity did they take advantage of the county’s Recovery Opportunity Court program. If they had been held as long as they should have been when they first offended, they might have been motivated sooner.

Mentally ill people who commit “nuisance crimes” such as trespassing and disorderly conduct are often the first to be released when there is not space to hold them. This means they don’t get connected to the community-based resources that could help them before they re-offend. No one is suggesting that authorities lock up mentally ill people who haven’t committed crimes. And those who are arrested need to be provided treatment and counseling both inside the jail and after they are released. The existing jail can’t accomplish either in an effective way.

All of this costs money — lots of money. The proposed new jail is expensive: $170.3 million spread over 20 years. But crime costs Jackson County more than that every year — $171.2 million annually — according to research by Southern Oregon University graduate student Luke Swancutt.

Will a new jail eliminate that cost? Of course not. But it can reduce it.

Crime costs each county resident an average of $806 a year, well above the state average of $618. And forced early releases to avoid overcrowding in the existing jail cost the county $22.4 million a year.

The existing jail was too small the day it opened. That was 38 years ago. It’s time to build a modern, state-of-the-art facility to address the needs of Jackson County in the 21st century.