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Cost of crime estimated in Jackson County

Editor's Note: The Mail Tribune and KTVL News 10 have joined forces in investigating whether jail is needed for people dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Monday: Addicts reflect on getting clean. Tuesday: Inmates are released without intervention or treatment. Wednesday: How much crime costs residents of Jackson County. Tune into KTVL News 10’s 6 p.m. broadcasts for more Monday-Wednesday.

While building a larger Jackson County Jail would cost $170.9 million, a study estimates the annual cost of crime in the county at $171.2 million.

Costs of crime include costs of law enforcement, prosecution, incarceration, property loss, medical care and missed work.

Southern Oregon University graduate student Luke Swancutt, who is pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree, calculated the average annual cost of crime in the county from 2013-2017 for his report “The Cost of Crime in Jackson County, Oregon.”

He looked at the work of national experts on the costs of major crimes, then multiplied those figures by the number of reported murders, rapes, serious assaults, robberies, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and thefts in Jackson County each year.

Swancutt found crime costs each county resident an average of $806 annually, higher than the state average of $618.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler believes the area’s higher crime rate is due in part to a lack of space at the 315-bed jail and early releases due to overcrowding. He proposes building a modern 800-bed jail.

“We pay more per resident for crime than in other parts of the state. We also have a high number of forced releases,” Sickler said.

Swancutt estimated each early release from the Jackson County Jail ends up costing society an average $7,126 per inmate.

Annual early release costs totaled $22.4 million, accounting for 13% of the overall cost of crime during the 2013-2017 study period, his report said.

The number of releases has varied each year depending on available beds.

In 2018, the jail had 5,330 early releases, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

That would put the total cost of early releases at nearly $38 million last year.

Jackson County had the second-highest number of forced releases among all counties in the state in 2018, trailing only Josephine County, which logged 5,564 forced releases, according to the Oregon Sheriffs’ Jail Command Council.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia said lack of space in the local jail means many low-level offenders are quickly released. Many continue racking up additional crimes and, for some, sinking deeper into addiction. As the list of charges grows and their crimes become more serious, they eventually face prison time.

“They went from having no convictions to prison because we couldn’t slow them down. We have individuals who are a crime wave in and of themselves,” Mejia said.

Costs also skyrocket as their crimes become increasingly severe.

Each theft costs society an estimated $2,566, according to Swancutt’s report, which looked at major national studies.

A motor vehicle theft costs $10,892 on average, and each burglary costs $15,711, the report said.

Costs jump to $80,712 for a robbery, defined as taking money or property from another person through force or the threat of force.

Mejia backs the proposal for a larger jail.

He said offenders who are sentenced to probation or are allowed into diversion programs have little incentive to comply when there is no threat of jail time when they mess up.

“Nothing is hanging over them. Being able to give them a five-to-10 day sanction of jail time would motivate them to deal with their issues,” he said.

Jackson County provides a full spectrum of alternative programs, including home detention, probation, community justice work crews and a transition center, said Jackson County Community Justice Director Eric Guyer.

But an adequately sized jail is a critical piece of the puzzle, he said.

“The jail really is the backbone of a lot of services we provide,” Guyer said. “We can really strengthen our outcomes and keep people safe. We look at jail as part of the answer.”

Early jail releases have contributed to a major problem of defendants failing to appear in court, Mejia said.

They waste the time of lawyers, judges, victims and others who do show up — plus burden police officers who have to rearrest them on warrants and drive them back to jail.

People who have to go to court for the first time in their lives are often shocked by the number of no-shows as judges call out each person’s name.

“It’s one failure to appear after another,” Mejia said. “Newbies who are terrified of being in the criminal justice system see that. It’s a bad lesson for them to learn.”

He said a shortage of jail beds also means people who violate restraining orders won’t be sentenced to jail time. That leaves domestic violence victims terrified they’ll be attacked again or even murdered.

“I think that’s a real safety issue,” Mejia said.

Murder is relatively rare in Jackson County, but when it does happen, the crime is often relationship-related, he said.

The average estimated societal cost of murder is $10.4 million, according to Swancutt’s research.

That would put the total estimated cost of Jackson County’s eight murders in 2017 at $83.2 million — making it the most costly crime despite far fewer occurrences than other major crimes.

Rape costs $261,374 on average, and serious assault costs $104,660, Swancutt’s report said.

Serious assault was the second-most costly crime in Jackson County in 2017, costing an estimated $51.7 million for 494 cases.

Former criminal and recovered drug addict Brandon Orr said he believes investing in a bigger jail could help curtail the cost of crime.

“Yes, a new jail will cost some money, but crime costs money throughout the year,” he said.

Orr racked up a long string of theft and drug possession charges as he battled meth and heroin addiction. Judges repeatedly issued warrants for his arrest for failing to appear in court on his cases.

Orr was finally sent away for 13 months in a state prison in Portland for his role in an identity theft ring. His time there allowed him to break free from addiction. He now is an active member of a Medford church and the local recovery community.

A larger jail would provide room and time for inmates to receive addiction treatment and other services to get back on track sooner, Orr said.

“I would give my right foot to have had opportunities when I was in there,” he said.

CORRECTION AND UPDATE: This story was updated with November 2019 estimates for building a new jail. The story was corrected to show the $170.9 million cost of building a new jail does not include annual operating costs for running a larger jail, which would start at about $15.5 million if the jail opened in 2024.

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

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