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Final hearing authorized for new jail proposal

A proposed taxing district to build a new Jackson County Jail cleared its second to last hurdle on the way to the ballot box — despite hours of public comment against the project from both sides of the political spectrum.

After more than four hours of comments from the standing-room-only crowd, Jackson County Commissioners unanimously approved a final hearing for the proposed tax district that will cover the new jail’s $170.9 construction costs and fund the larger building’s increased staff and operating costs.

The courthouse auditorium neared its 108-person fire code limit Wednesday as dozens of commenters touched on a wide range of issues in opposition to the project. Some property owners expressed concern over the proposed 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value’s impact on their property tax burden, while others advocated for more mental health resources.

The proposed new facility would be about 2-1/2 times the size of the current Jackson County Jail: 796 beds, compared to the current jail’s 300-bed daytime capacity and 315-bed nighttime capacity, according to Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Sickler told commissioners he anticipated that of those 796 beds, only about 650 would be used — with excess capacity reserved for circumstances such as when an inmate poses a threat to a bunkmate and needs to be separated to his or her own cell.

Having an added 15% or 20% capacity on reserve is law enforcement best practice that gives corrections staff flexibility, Sickler said. However, because of the current Jackson County Jail’s capacity crisis, staff operate the facility in a one-in, one-out capacity to keep as many high-risk offenders off the street as possible.

Sickler told commissioners that the nearly 40-year-old building will need to replace its plumbing in the next decade — a costly upgrade that will involve replacing cast iron plumbing encased in concrete — and advocated for rebuilding the jail sooner rather than later because construction costs keep rising.

“I think everyone can agree a better-designed building will be a benefit to our community,” Sickler said.

Peter Ware of Medford, speaking on behalf of the Medford Congregational United Church of Christ’s Justice and Peace Ministry Team, acknowledged that the proposal has more mental health treatment programs than what the current jail offers, but said the church ministry still opposes the taxing district because it lacks money for treatment programs for people outside the jail.

Karen Caldwell said she called Jackson County’s crisis hotline for help with a loved one who had a mental illness, but the hotline told her to call police.

Caldwell advocated for Jackson County to add more resources similar to Eugene’s “CAHOOTS” or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program, or Marion County’s 24-hour mental health crisis center that dispatches licensed therapists with local law enforcement.

“While we clearly need a modern jail, we need so much more,” Caldwell said.

Jackson County has a walk-in mental health crisis center, but it’s only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, according to earlier news reports. Jackson County operates a 24-hour crisis phone line, and mobile response therapists are available to go out at all hours.

Numerous speakers — many of them aligned with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Oregon and the social justice nonprofit Unite Oregon Rogue Valley — relayed similar concerns that the current resources are lacking. They also advocated for bolstering mental health and alternative programs outside the criminal justice system.

Commissioners Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser touched on programs already in place such as the county’s involvement in the National Association of Counties’ “Stepping Up” initiative — a nationwide program that seeks to reduce people with mental illnesses in the jail.

According to a resolution on Stepping Up’s website, commissioners Dyer and Colleen Roberts were among the commissioners who signed the resolution to join Stepping Up on April 13, 2016.

“We don’t want to take them to jail, Dyer said. “That’s not our goal.”

“This is not solely a mental health question — it’s a jail capacity question.”

Dyer and Strosser further mentioned that the county regularly holds Crisis Intervention Training with law enforcement to help police better work with mentally ill.

“Most people aren’t aware these programs exist,” Strosser said.

Strosser said he’s had to call Jackson County’s crisis line for a loved one before, and described the immediate response as swift — but follow-ups delayed. He acknowledged that jail isn’t usually the optimal place for mentally ill people who commit crimes, but said “they certainly don’t improve” if the individuals are released before they can be stabilized.

Karen Alonzo of Medford expressed concern as a retired senior who’s on a fixed income.

“I don’t live in a mansion,” Alonzo said.

County commissioners will make their final decision whether to place the jail taxing district on the May ballot at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 26.

If commissioners greenlight the proposal, the initiative would be placed in voters’ hands.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

The current Jackson County Jail was built in 1981 and currently houses 315 inmates. Mail Tribune file photo.