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A female inmate watches television in the common area known as the day room at the Jackson County Jail. Mail Tribune file photo

Grand jury backs new jail

Jackson County will soon present voters with an updated cost estimate on a new jail to alleviate chronic overcrowding, Sheriff Nathan Sickler said.

“Hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll be able to come to the public with a number that might be palatable for passing in the service district,” Sickler said. The county has proposed creating a service district and tax to help pay for a jail, which likely will cost $100 million or more. Both would need to be approved by voters.

On Nov. 5, the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office published the latest grand jury report assessing Jackson County correctional facilities. Replacing the jail leads the grand jury’s list of recommendations.

“There’s an ongoing thing, you know,” Sickler said. “The jail is not serving the overall needs of the community.”

In his response to the grand jury’s recommendations, Sickler wrote that he agreed — but a replacement wouldn’t be feasible yet.

“The county currently does not have the funds to build a new jail or fund the increased operating costs on an ongoing basis without asking the voters for some type of funding,” he wrote.

Results from a phone survey commissioned by the county suggested in April that voters would not be inclined to support the offered proposal: a $100 million bond measure and a new taxing district. County Administrator Danny Jordan said in February this plan would cover construction and operation costs for a new 1,000-bed jail.

Construction would cost 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — or $70 a year for the owner of a house assessed at $200,000. Additionally, the new taxing district to pay for increased operating expenses would cost 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — or $148 per year for the owner of a house assessed at $200,000.

The forthcoming estimate is expected to be lower, Sickler said, thanks to efforts by the architecture firm designing the new jail to bring down costs. Also, the library bond county residents have been paying off will expire in 2020, bringing the total increase in tax rate down to about 60 cents, Jordan has said.

Sickler said he expects the new estimate to be released in early December.

The grand jury put together the report recommending a new jail after interviewing various law enforcement and criminal justice staff and touring facilities. The process ran from March through May.

The report, required annually by Oregon statute for all correctional institutions in every county, is typically published in early summer. But this year, it wasn’t published on the district attorney’s website until the day before the midterm election, in which Sickler ran for the sheriff’s seat after being appointed in 2016 to replace then-Sheriff Corey Falls.

District Attorney Beth Heckert said that during staff transitions over the summer, an office aide had forgotten to publish the report until Monday.

“I think that was just an error on our part,” Heckert said.

In addition to addressing the overcrowded jail, the grand jury recommended bolstering mental health personnel at each facility. Sickler responded that limited jail capacity is hurting its ability to help mentally ill people, as many have to be released before they can see a trained professional.

Plans for a new jail have included more space and resources for mental health programs.

“We’re trying to make housing more amicable in the jail for those that have mental health issues,” Sickler said. “We try to keep them in an environment that helps them deal with their issues better.”

Lisa McCurley, deputy director of the Community Justice Transition Center, agreed that more mental health resources were needed, but said the department was unable to implement new resources due to funding.

At the Jackson County Juvenile Division, Deputy Director Joe Ferguson wrote that a new contract with Options of Southern Oregon would increase mental health services to youth. Those services are billed either through the Oregon Health Plan or paid by the department, depending on whether the juvenile is in the detention or residential program.

Both recommendations echo suggestions from earlier reports, though county officials in the past seem to have taken previous grand jury suggestions seriously.

After the 2016 report recommended reopening the jail basement space to hold inmates, closed by Falls in November 2015, Sickler reopened it.

The move bumped up capacity in the jail to 292 beds, but it was overcrowded again within a week.

Laura Cromwell, who worked with the most recent grand jury while she was senior deputy district attorney, said that she feels that county officials are more open to pursuing a new jail.

“A lot of people in local government understand now that they’ve heard it a few times in a row,” Cromwell, now a Circuit Court judge, said. “Being on the bench, I think it’s become even more obvious to me.”

She recommended that community members who want to learn more about the jail issue look through previous reports to understand what their peers learn and how they respond after going inside the facilities and talking with those in charge of them.

“When citizens come to do that review, it’s blatantly obvious that we need a new jail,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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