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Jail price tag: $166 million

A new 800-bed jail to replace the overcrowded Jackson County Jail would cost $166 million, according to new estimates.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler briefed Jackson County commissioners on the projected price tag Thursday.

He hopes commissioners will ask voters in November whether to approve a service district and funding for jail construction and added operating costs for the larger facility.

The proposed maximum property tax rate for the service district would be almost 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

That would cost the owner of a $200,000 home another $167 annually in property taxes.

The new taxes would generate $100 million to build the jail, and the county would contribute $60 million, reducing its reserves. The county already has spent approximately $6 million to buy land along Highway 62 for the proposed jail. The taxes would also cover the increased annual costs of operating a larger jail, which would be about $15.5 million more.

The current jail houses 300 inmates during the day and 315 at night, when most are in bed and easier to supervise.

Inmates are regularly released due to overcrowding. Some go on to commit new crimes or skip court dates, putting added strain on the community and criminal justice system.

“A new jail is going to provide a lot of relief and a lot of efficiencies to not just the Sheriff’s Office, but to all the police departments, the DA’s Office, the courts, the public defenders office — and it’s going to provide relief to our community,” Sickler said.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said prosecutors often make plea offers of only a few days in jail — the brief time a defendant spent in jail after being arrested. Prosecutors know there isn’t enough jail space for longer sentences.

Some police officers don’t bother trying to lodge a suspect in jail because they know the person will be quickly released, Heckert said.

“We would be able to hold folks who need to be held in our jail,” she said, noting the goal isn’t to hold low-risk offenders.

The price tag could be a difficult sell to voters.

In March 2018, a survey of 329 county voters showed most would balk at the cost of a larger jail.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said funding measures on the ballot often don’t pass the first time around.

If voters did approve a service district in November, the county would move forward with architectural planning, construction, training of jail staff to run the new jail and transferring inmates. The jail could be open by mid-2023, Sickler said.

Although it would have 800 beds, Sickler said the jail would actually house 640 to 700 inmates. Some inmates have to be kept apart from other inmates because of their behavior, risk level or the crime they are accused of committing. A cell with two bunks, for example, might hold only one person.

Heckert said the local criminal justice system has adapted in many ways to an undersized jail, but the facility built in the 1980s is too small for the county’s population.

“We have just pushed it as far as we can,” she said. “We are to the point where a new facility really is the only option. And although it is expensive, I think we would really see a dramatic livability difference in our community by making this investment in our future.”

Heckert said she fields questions daily about why certain defendants weren’t held in jail longer. The questions come from everyone from burglary victims to family members who want their mentally ill loved one held.

“We hear it just constantly,” she said.

The average stay in the Jackson County Jail is four days — far too short to address a person’s addiction or mental health issues, Heckert said.

The new jail would have treatment space. And unlike the current jail with long hallways, the new jail would have two housing units, each with a central supervision area where jail staff could keep a better eye on all inmates.

Sickler said while the cost of a new jail is easy for the community to see, crime also has a cost to the community.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said residents may hesitate to pay for a new jail — especially those already struggling to pay their property taxes. Some could be pushed out of their homes by added taxes.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said residents of Springfield approved jail funding and saw crime drop by more than 30 percent.

“I think the benefit far outweighs the cost,” he said.

Dyer said he is ready to ask county voters if they want to fund a new jail.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said the current catch-and-release approach means many offenders don’t get the addiction and mental health help many need to stabilize.

Commissioners will have more discussion about whether they want to refer the issue to voters Tuesday at their 9 a.m. work session in the Jackson Room of the Jackson County Courthouse, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

If commissioners agree to move forward, county officials will ask local cities if they want to be included in the district that would fund the larger jail.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

A female inmate rests in the Jackson County Jail. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]