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What's next after voters rejected jail proposal?

What’s next now that voters have overwhelmingly rejected Jackson County’s proposal to nearly triple jail capacity without improving programs to reduce repeat crimes and keep people out of jail in the first place?

We are elected leaders in Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Ashland who voted against this proposal when it was brought before city councils last year because we wanted a more effective and comprehensive plan. We believe that it is the job of public officials to solve problems, and now that the voters have spoken, we hope the county commissioners and county administrator will listen to what residents have been telling them for more than two years.

In March 2018, the county spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on a professional public opinion poll that found that a proposal to raise taxes solely for a much larger new jail was very unlikely to pass.

That would have been a time to reach out to community groups to develop a proposal that residents would actually support by addressing underlying problems such as mental illness, addiction, homelessness and poverty.

But — strike one: County officials ignored the poll we all paid for. In fact, on Oct. 16, 2018, County Administrator Danny Jordan said at a commissioners meeting that if taxpayers vote no, “we can still work to afford to build a new jail without asking taxpayers. I don’t think we give up if taxpayers say yes or no.”

Strike two came the following spring. City councils in Talent and Ashland declined to support the jail-only proposal.

County officials announced that they would form a committee to share ideas. But the “committee” meetings turned out to simply be lectures in favor of the existing proposal. Requests for facts were ignored, and ideas for alternatives weren’t considered.

Community groups such as the Rogue Action Center (RAC) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter for Southern Oregon (NAMI-SO) had to step up to fill the void.

The RAC and NAMI-SO organized a series of forums featuring leaders of law enforcement and social service programs from Marion County and Eugene who described how they reduce jail bookings and repeat crimes, and save taxpayer money through prevention, crisis intervention, diversion and treatment.

Marion County officials provided data, consistent with research in many other counties, showing that, on average, longer jail stays actually increase repeat crimes instead of reducing them because those arrested often lose employment and access to rental housing, lose essential benefits, and suffer new trauma that makes it harder to function afterward.

No one claimed that other counties like those have achieved perfection, but clearly they have made progress.

But instead of welcoming other ideas, Jackson County officials responded with defensiveness, obviously determined to discredit innovations in other counties instead of trying to learn from them.

Last fall, the same jail-only proposal was put before city councils again. Jordan threatened that if a city didn’t endorse it, the county would withhold services residents were already paying for.

When the CEO of Jackson Care Connect testified before the Ashland City Council that “our mental health system is broken,” county officials pointed the finger at other agencies instead of saying how they would coordinate with those agencies for real solutions.

Dismayed residents at county hearings testified against the jail-only proposal by a ratio of 50 to 4.

Now, strike three: The jail-only proposal has been turned down by voters after more than two years of time and money were wasted on an approach that never had a chance of passing.

There is some good news, however.

As a result of the debate, thousands of residents have learned what’s possible and will be involved like never before in seeking real solutions.

We’ve learned that those solutions require a commitment to address mental illness, addiction, homelessness and poverty instead of stigmatizing those who are affected and relying just on a narrow law enforcement response.

We’ve learned the importance of having community groups such as Rogue Action Center, NAMI-SO and others at the table to help identify effective solutions.

We’ve learned that residents do not want huge new spending, in any form, on a jail-only approach.

We’ve learned that with continued population growth and with new fiscal challenges as a result of COVID-19, it will be particularly important to find cost-effective alternatives to continually building bigger jails.

We hope Jackson County officials have learned those lessons too, and we look forward to working with them on constructive and practical alternatives.

Julie Akins (Ashland), Kay Brooks (Medford), Jason Clark (Talent), and Sarah Westover (Phoenix) are city councilors who voted against the jail tax when it came before their cities last year. The views expressed here are their own.

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