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Ashland: thumbs-down on jail

A proposal to refer funding a new Jackson County Jail to voters was narrowly rejected Tuesday night by Ashland city councilors, who said they would prefer the county focus more on addressing the problems that lead to crime in the first place.

“If we’re going to make such a large investment, I want to see a more comprehensive solution with preventative measures to reduce the number of people ending up in jail in the first place,” Councilwoman Tonya Graham said in an interview Thursday. “I hope the county will build on the good work done here and come back with a more comprehensive approach addressing poverty, homelessness and educational opportunities.”

The council defeated 3-2 a referral to voters to create a taxing district that would build and operate a new $166 million jail, effectively killing the county’s chances of putting the measure on the November ballot. The city of Talent also rejected the idea. All 11 incorporated cities must agree by May 17 to participate in the taxing district or the proposal won’t make the fall ballot, Sheriff Nate Sickler has said.

Sickler and other county officials note the 315-space jail is plagued with overcrowding, meaning inmates are routinely released early before serving their time or getting the help they need.

Sickler said in a Facebook post that the two councils’ decisions “essentially took away the opportunity for voters to make a decision regarding the future of a jail project.”

He said efforts to build a new jail will “have to start from the beginning.”

“My hope is, as a collective community, we can work together to find acceptable solutions to the problems our community is experiencing due to a lack of jail capacity,” he said.

Ashland councilors suggested at their Tuesday meeting that the county could revamp the proposal to include a comprehensive plan that treats social factors — and shoot for a public vote in the May primary election next year.

Councilman Rich Rosenthal supported referring the jail measure to voters.

“Although there were many questions and concerns about the county’s jail plan, I felt giving voters the final say on the matter was the best path forward,” he wrote in an email to the Ashland Tidings. “I hope the county can come back with a proposal that addresses the considerable feedback it received from the cities.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery said he believes the new jail is needed and realizes it would include mental health and addiction treatment, “but what I want is assurance for a more comprehensive plan for how we tend to those services, not just now when we’re trying to market a facility but in 2024 and 2028. That assurance didn’t come forward. It’s important not just to pick up and store people but to break the cycle. If we don’t leverage our resources and do better, we’ll just fill up another jail and be back to square one.”

Slattery believes the county has one chance at this and if it fails — which he said is likely at this point — it would be hard to bring it back to life.

“We’re not having another meeting on this. We’re done. November is not the last election in the world. I’m doing them a favor raising these questions. They need to strengthen it.”

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said in an interview she wants to see “a more thought-out package, a continuum of care, not just a facility. We do need another jail, but we need guaranteed services around it. It’s a hefty price and we need to invest in rehabilitation of people and mental health, drug treatment, not keeping someone in jail longer. People are being asked to pay for schools and affordable housing and, because homes are more expensive in Ashland, we would pay more for the jail.”

Councilwoman Julie Ann Christie Akins was out of state, but in a phone interview she said, “The money would be better spent on creative solutions for people with mental illness and addictions — and incarceration is not the best solution for that. Treatment shouldn’t start in jails and go into programs. It should start in the programs.”

A string of Ashland residents at the public hearing voiced similar issues.

“Jails are not the right place for addicts,” Allie Rosenbluth said. “We need affordable housing and clean energy. This is a terrible, terrible idea.”

Sid Browning said, “Instead of growing the capacity of jails, we should grow our capacity to keep people out of jails. No one should be arrested for mental illness or addiction or be traumatized by police to get the help they need. Let’s invest in human needs and not more cages.”

Ashland business owner Holly Mills said, “This extremely expensive jail seems a Band-aid, a huge waste of money and if the people of Ashland vote it down, we shouldn’t be compelled by the rest of the county to pay for it.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen voted yes, noting he felt Ashland, by rejecting the proposal, was “dictating to the rest of the county and that bothers me.”

Reach Ashland freelancer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Efforts to build a new Jackson County Jail will have to start at square one, Sheriff Nate Sickler says. Ashland Tidings file photo