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Community jail panel creates important opportunity

The decision by city councilors in several local cities not to endorse a proposal to build a new Jackson County jail has created an important new opportunity — if county officials take advantage of it.

The county’s proposal was to raise property taxes for at least 20 years for a $166 million jail that could hold up to 896 people. (The current jail holds 315).

But city councilors said they wanted to see a larger discussion of ways to invest in better prevention and treatment to reduce the number of people who end up in jail in the first place.

Because the proposal did not gain approval for the November ballot, Sheriff Nathan Sickler is forming a community panel to discuss next steps.

Whether that leads to progress depends on what this panel will discuss, who will be represented, who sets the agenda and what recommendations for action will emerge.

At worst, county officials will see the panel as a way to push through their original proposal and a predetermined timeline of putting a new jail on next May’s ballot — without an action plan on the broader issues city councilors raised.

According to a recent Mail Tribune article, “Sheriff refocuses efforts on jail proposal,” County Commissioner Rick Dyer appeared to dismiss councilors’ concerns as just “perceptions based on a lack of information.”

In a similar vein, County Administrator Danny Jordan suggested that if cities don’t support the existing proposal, the county will proceed with it anyway.

At best, however, the community panel could engage in an honest and far-reaching analysis of Jackson County’s current approach to criminal justice, addiction, mental health, homelessness and skyrocketing housing costs, and other related problems.

Sickler said the panel would include not only law enforcement but also elected city officials, mental health providers, addiction treatment professionals, and other concerned community members.

They could take a fresh look at some interesting facts that Sickler presented when city councils were considering the original proposal.

For example, he said that Jackson County has far more jail bookings each year per 1,000 residents than other counties like Deschutes, Clackamas, Lane, Washington or Marion — in some cases more than twice as many.

The panel could look at whether that shows Jackson County needs to nearly triple its available jail space, or whether other counties’ bookings rates are lower because they have implemented community-based prevention, treatment and diversion programs.

The county reported that the average length of stay in jail is approximately seven days, and argued that longer stays are needed to connect people with mental health or addiction services. Given the negative impact the jail environment has on such people, and the ways a record makes it harder to get jobs or housing, the panel could look at the ways other counties provide outreach, prevention, and treatment so people get connected to services without ending up in jail first.

Another benefit of the community panel could be to expand responsibility for proven solutions beyond just Sheriff Sickler.

As a concerned citizen with a long-standing interest in criminal justice, I attended the interviews when Sickler and others were considered for appointment to fill the sheriff’s vacancy in 2017. He stood out for his professionalism and apparent openness to new ideas. That’s one of the reasons I encouraged friends and neighbors to vote for him last year.

But whether a $166 million new jail is the best investment is not a stand-alone policy issue that law enforcement should be expected to handle on its own. It will take broad community input and teamwork to identify best practices and achieve better results on the interrelated problems of over-incarceration, mental health or addiction treatment and prevention, and the impacts of our housing affordability crisis.

Finally, the community panel can serve as a reminder that finding effective solutions is not a partisan issue.

One of the few things Republicans and Democrats in Congress have agreed on in the past year was adopting policy changes to incarcerate fewer people, rather than more.

The year before that, our state Legislature adopted alternatives to building a new prison, with support not only from Democratic leaders but from national conservatives like Newt Gingrich and David Keene, former president of the National Rifle Association.

Similar progress can be made in Jackson County if a truly representative community panel is allowed to look at fundamental solutions and is not restricted to focusing on a new jail as the predetermined outcome.

Matt Witt is a writer and photographer who lives in Talent.