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Sheriff: More jail beds equal less crime

When the Jackson County Jail has more beds, crime rates in Medford, Ashland and the county go down.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler presented data to back up that claim as he continues his bid to convince residents the current 315-bed jail should be replaced with a new 800-bed jail.

Inmates are regularly released due to overcrowding, but building and operating a bigger jail would cost $170.3 million, according to recently updated cost estimates.

“There’s a pretty significant correlation between forced releases — meaning you’re kicking people out of your jail because you’re full — and crime rates,” Sickler said.

The jail inadvertently became a lab for studying the relationship between jail beds and crime beginning in 2014.

That’s when former Sheriff Mike Winters spent $2.7 million to remodel the jail basement to add about 60 extra beds.

But in late 2015, Sheriff Corey Falls closed the basement, saying there weren’t enough staff members to run the jail safely.

With the extra jail beds in 2014, Jackson County had 9,945 reports of Part 1 and Part 2 crimes. Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and theft. Part 2 crimes include drug cases, lower level assaults, driving under the influence of intoxicants, vandalism and disorderly conduct.

Jackson County lost the extra jail beds for the last part of 2015, and that year, Part 1 and 2 crime reports rose to 10,746.

In 2016, the first full year without the basement beds, crime reports jumped to 13,779.

Current Sheriff Nathan Sickler took over in 2017 and reopened the basement in May.

With the extra beds available for part of the year, crime was still up — to 14,622 reports in 2017 — but the rate of increase had slowed.

In 2018, with the basement open for a full year, Jackson County saw its first crime drop in years, with 14,340 reports.

Jail staff members not only had the basement beds back, they rearranged inmates to push the 292-bed capacity to 300 inmates during the day and 315 during the night, when most inmates are sleeping and easier to supervise.

In addition, in 2018, the jail began reserving up to 10 beds for offenders who repeatedly fail to appear for their court dates. The chronic skippers are held until they resolve their cases.

Fluctuations in the number of jail beds also impacted crimes reported to the Medford Police Department, which lodges the most inmates of all the law enforcement agencies in the county.

With no basement beds for all of 2016, Part 1 and 2 crimes rose 23% in Medford, according to calculations by the sheriff’s office.

Crime reports dipped by 4% in 2017 when the basement beds were available for part of the year, and dropped by another 15% in 2018 with the basement was open for the full year, according to the calculations.

Ashland saw a similar pattern, with Part 1 crime reports up 29% in 2016 and 5% in 2017. Part 1 and 2 crime reports dipped 7% in 2018, calculations show.

Sickler said Part 1 and 2 crime data for all years wasn’t available.

“People want to argue that bed space isn’t the answer,” he said. “I think quite the contrary.”

This past spring, Sickler visited 11 city councils in the county, asking them to let their voters choose whether to approve a countywide measure in November for a taxing district to fund a new jail.

The city councils in Ashland and Talent decided not to put the proposal to their voters, putting an end to Sickler’s hopes for a November vote.

Sickler said the financial burden on the rest of county residents would likely be too high to win voter approval without the participation of the two towns — especially Ashland due to its larger size.

He plans to return to local city councils again and ask them to consider a countywide jail funding district and a district that excludes Talent. He believes Talent elected officials have more reservations about a new jail.

Councilors in both towns said they wanted to see more done to address root causes of crime, including addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty.

Voters would have the final say on whether to fund a new jail if the issue goes on the May 2020 ballot.

Sickler said the extra jail beds at the current jail have helped reduce strain on law enforcement agencies and the courts.

The jail had 8,600 forced releases of inmates due to overcrowding in 2016, the full year without the basement beds.

Forced releases fell to 5,330 in 2018.

In 2016, 13,184 arrest warrants were issued, compared to 10,798 in 2018.

Warrants for failing to appear in court numbered 9,670 in 2016 and dropped to 6,705 in 2018.

People who skip court waste the time of judges, lawyers, victims and others. More time is wasted when police have to arrest them on failure-to-appear warrants, lodge them in jail and start the whole cycle over again.

Sickler said a relationship between jail beds and crime can be seen in other counties.

Josephine County slashed its number of jail beds in 2012 after voters rejected a countywide public safety levy.

With conditions deteriorating, the city of Grants Pass paid for 30 jail beds for the last part of 2013 and all of 2014.

From 2012 to 2014, reported assaults fell from 470 to 310, burglaries plummeted from 602 to 393 and robberies fell from 41 to 21, according to statistics Sickler gathered from the Grants Pass Department of Public Safety.

Theft reports fell from 2,834 to 2,205 from 2012 to 2014.

Disorderly conduct dipped slightly, with 1,254 reports in 2012 and 1,232 in 2014.

Stolen vehicle reports bucked the trend, rising from 223 to 249 during those years.

After five failed attempts and a reduction in the amount of new taxes being sought, Josephine County voters approved a public safety levy in 2017, restoring many of the lost services.

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

Crime drops when there are more Jackson jail{ } beds available. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch