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Jackson County Commissioners to hold hearing on jail proposal

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing Wednesday about a controversial proposal to build a new $170.9 million jail and pay for increased operating costs of a larger facility.

The hearing is scheduled during the board’s regular meeting that starts at 9:30 a.m. in the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

If commissioners decide a new jail would be beneficial to county residents, they will set a final hearing at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 26 in the courthouse auditorium.

During the May 19 primary election, Jackson County voters could decide whether to approve a law enforcement district to cover the costs of building a jail and paying for increased operating costs.

The new taxing district would cost 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $169.32 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $194,200 — the county average.

The current 315-bed Jackson County Jail in downtown Medford opened in 1981, when the county’s population was approximately 134,500 residents, according to county officials.

The county’s population is now at least 221,290, according to July 2019 estimates from Portland State University, which compiles population data.

The new jail, which would be built along Highway 62, would house at least 800 inmates.

County officials said crowding at the current jail regularly leads to forced releases.

In 2017, the county had to release 7,000 inmates before their first appearance in court because of a lack of capacity, county officials said.

That same year, more than 10,000 warrants were issued for defendants who failed to make required court appearances in criminal cases, officials said.

The jail also saw 7,000 lodgings into jail for repeat offenders, officials said.

After adding beds to its previously shuttered basement level, the Jackson County Jail had 5,330 early releases in 2018.

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

The catch-and-release situation at the Jackson County Jail is putting added strain on courts, local police departments and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, past studies have found.

Many offenders fail to show up in court, don’t comply with probation requirements and violate domestic violence restraining orders because of the lack of consequences, local judges say.

Repeat offenders continue to victimize people — often while sinking deeper into drug addiction. They rack up criminal histories that eventually land them in state prisons and hurt their chances of finding jobs in the future, according to some judges and former addicts.

County officials said a lack of capacity and an outdated architectural design at the current jail make it hard to provide comprehensive services to inmates suffering from mental health issues and addiction.

Many opponents of the proposal for a larger jail advocate putting more money into addiction treatment, mental health care and other areas that prevent people from being arrested in the first place.

Jail opponents say it will siphon off millions of dollars from taxpayers and hurt the chances of future property tax measures to support schools and other community needs. They say higher taxes will put even more of a burden on people struggling to afford housing in the Rogue Valley.

During the first 20 years of the proposed new district, taxpayers would pay $514 million for jail construction and increased operating costs, according to county figures.

Jackson County would pitch in $60 million toward the cost of the new jail, draining down its reserves. It already has paid $6.6 million to buy 47 acres for the proposed facility.

Jackson County would also continue to pay baseline operating costs for the jail, county officials have said.

The current fiscal year operating budget of $13.5 million for the 315-bed jail would jump to approximately $29 million if a new jail opened in 2024 with 800 prisoners, according to county figures.

Talent has opted out of participating in the law enforcement tax district if it passes.

County officials said they will still jail people arrested in Talent.

But the county is exploring other ways to make Talent pay, such as instituting fees on free services like 24 hour records access that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office currently provides for small police departments.

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

Jackson County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on a controversial proposal to build a larger jail. Mail Tribune file photo.