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Evaluating the jail proposal from personal experience

I’d like to talk about Jackson County’s proposed jail tax, based on my own personal experience.

I’m a Medford native, born at Rogue Valley Medical Center and graduated from South Medford High School.

I’m a single mother living on a single income. That means I have to make sure I spend my money wisely, and I expect our county officials to do the same.

I also have personally relied on mental health services during my life, and for the past seven years I have worked with a variety of vulnerable individuals and families in this community through multiple nonprofit social service agencies.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my own experience and from my work is that prevention and early intervention on the front end is far more effective and far cheaper than trying to deal with the consequences of untreated problems on the back end.

Unfortunately, the county’s tax proposal that will be before voters in May takes the opposite approach. Instead of addressing problems on the front end, it would spend more than

$1 billion of our money over the next 23 years, including nearly all of the county’s reserves, solely for a new jail much bigger than the one we have now.

When I was a high school student, I lived in West Medford on Elm Street. Most of my neighbors were poor and could barely afford the high cost of even the low-quality housing that was available. Facing life without much hope or opportunity, some of the children and teenagers who lived near me grew up in homes riddled with trauma and substance abuse exacerbated by poverty.

Our elected officials’ response was not to address the housing affordability crisis or to help ensure that jobs paid a truly living wage. Nor did they hold down class sizes in our schools and make sure there were enough skilled social workers and qualified mental health care professionals to help children and teens cope with the behavioral results of trauma and chemical imbalances. If people in our neighborhood needed mental health or addiction treatment or crisis assistance, they had to wait many months, often until it was too late.

Instead, our neighborhood had a disproportionate presence of police – people whose job is it to arrest and to jail, not to help people in need before trouble arises. Friends and acquaintances of mine were repeatedly criminalized for behavior related to substance abuse and/or mental illness that could have been addressed with community-based treatment services.

Once they had been taken into the criminal justice system, they had new obstacles to overcome. They were stigmatized in the eyes of potential employers or landlords. In some cases, they made new friends in jail who, once they had that stigma, saw no alternative but to survive through illegal activity like drug dealing once they got out.

I identify with these people I have known because, if it were not for mental health support I have received during my life, I could have ended up in the same situation.

Risk is measured by a test known as ACEs, which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. On a scale of 1 to 10, it identifies individuals most at risk to suffer from a variety of mental health issues, substance abuse, and incarceration.

My personal ACEs score is 8 out of 10. Statistically, I should be addicted to serious drugs and have been incarcerated at least one time due to residual effects of trauma I suffered in childhood.

Fortunately, I have never been incarcerated or addicted to any substances (other than coffee) and have been a contributing member to society my entire adult life. I was very fortunate to have received mental health support at various times throughout my life. That has made every bit of difference in how my life has unfolded and is the fundamental reason I have chosen to dedicate my professional life to mental health services.

I want to see our county work with other agencies to ensure that other people facing poverty, unsafe or unaffordable housing, mental illness, addiction, and childhood trauma have access to the same support on the front end that I have received.

It’s not always a magic solution and may not work in every case. But I have seen with my own eyes that for many people it does make the difference. And it will become much less likely if all our money is spent just on a big new jail.

Nicole Paradis lives in Medford and is completing a master’s degree in clinical social work.

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