New jail cost: $100 million

Building a new jail in Jackson County would cost an estimated $100 million and increase operating costs by roughly $14 million a year, according to new projections by county officials.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan briefed the Jackson County Board of Commissioners on the cost estimates Tuesday.

"I don't want to shock the public about it because it's a big number — but it is a reasonable number," Jordan said about the accuracy of the estimate.

A new jail would cost property owners an estimated $1.09 per $1,000 of assessed property value, he said. That would equal $218 a year for the owner of a house assessed at $200,000.

Construction costs would account for 35 cents of the $1.09 and would be paid off in 20 years. Continuing operating costs would account for 74 cents, said Jordan, adding it wouldn't make sense to build a bigger jail if the county didn't have funding to keep it running. Jordan told the commissioners they could consider forming a special law enforcement district, similar to the library district, through which the funds would flow.

Commissioners agreed to pay for a detailed phone survey to see whether the public would support the spending for a new jail. 

The survey will cost about $30,000 to $60,000. Past surveys have accurately predicted how residents would vote on funding proposals on the ballot, Jordan said.

He said if there's little public support for the spending, the county shouldn't waste time and money on actions such as hiring an architect to come up with detailed plans and estimates. But if there is public support, the county could proceed with putting the issue before voters.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said the decision to commission a survey about funding a new jail is a step in the right direction. The Sheriff's Office runs the jail.

"What's going on in this valley all ties back to the jail. It's well known that the jail is not serving the needs of the community and the criminal justice system," Sickler said. "It's causing strain on the whole system."

The jail currently has 292 inmate beds, he said. Prisoners are routinely released early — sometimes the same day they're jailed — due to overcrowding.

Jordan said if a new jail is built, it should probably have about 1,000 beds, allowing room for growth in the inmate population in the future. Initially, it would likely house about 750 inmates.

He said it wouldn't make sense to build a jail that was at capacity as soon as it opened.

"We're trying to catch the jail up to the system and get a little bit ahead," Jordan said.

The county would have to acquire property in a new location, because the current jail site in downtown Medford next to Jackson County Circuit Court isn't large enough, he said.

Finding a new location would present its own set of problems, Jordan acknowledged.

"The first thing people will want to know is, 'Where is it going to be? Because I don't want it by me,' " he said.

Jordan said building a new jail is costly. The facility would be classified as an essential services building and would have to meet high government safety standards, such as being able to withstand an earthquake and being able to operate off the power grid for a certain period of time.

A 2017 audit found the jail’s capacity and outdated design are causing a bottleneck within the local criminal justice system.

The jail has thousands of inmate early releases annually due to overcrowding. Officials also say that criminal defendants recognize there's little threat of being jailed for any significant time, so frequently fail to appear in court, causing judges to issue warrants for their arrest.

There are 11,000 outstanding warrants in Jackson County, Jordan said.

The jail offers Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotic Anonymous programs, but other drug and alcohol treatment programs were canceled because most inmates weren't staying in jail long enough to benefit, according to Sheriff's Office Capt. Dan Penland, commander of the jail.

One mental health worker serves the jail, although the facility does have support from the Jackson County Mental Health department, as well, Penland said.

With more jail space, the county could provide more programs for mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and life skills training that help people reform and not commit new crimes, Jordan said.

The audit found the county has done a good job setting up alternative programs that help prevent incarceration, including drug treatment court, mental health court and its Transition Center between Phoenix and Talent that offers a place to live, treatment, counseling, work crews and help finding jobs.

But many offenders can't take advantage of the programs because they are released quickly from jail, commit new crimes and lose eligibility, the audit found.

County Commissioner Bob Strosser said a lack of jail space is harming the alternative programs.

"Even the alternative programs are suffering because there's no consequence," Strosser said.

County Commissioner Rick Dyer said a bigger jail wouldn't eliminate crime, but being able to keep people in jail could lead to savings in other areas. He noted crime has costs for victims, the criminal justice system and other parts of society.

Sickler said members of the public and law enforcement agencies are frustrated with repeat offenders and how people cycle in and out of jail.

He said one pregnant woman who was addicted to opioids was begging to stay in jail because she didn't want to use drugs and harm her baby. But with limited beds, the jail has to prioritize and can only keep its worst offenders.

"We couldn't hold her because it wasn't a serious enough crime," Sickler said.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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