Public safety comes with a price tag

There's no getting around it: $100 million is a lot of money. That's what Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan estimates it would cost to build and operate a new county jail.

But county residents should balance that price tag against the continuing costs of running an outdated, inadequate jail that too often serves as little more than a revolving door for the county's criminal element.

The county commissioners agreed last week to conduct a detailed phone survey of county residents to gauge support for a $100 million bond measure to build a new jail. The cost of that survey — $30,000 to $40,000 — is well worth it, especially if the results indicate the measure would fail. That would save the county the expense of drawing up detailed plans only to have the proposal rejected.

The estimated cost to property owners would be just over $1 per $1,000 of assessed — not market — value. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $218 a year.

But before declaring the idea dead, too expensive or irresponsible, consider a few facts:

The existing jail, which can house 292 beds, was built in 1981. The county's population in 1981 was 134,546. Today, 37 years later, it's north of 216,000. Essentially, the county has added the equivalent population of a city the size of Medford. It's no wonder the jail is overcrowded.

Jordan proposes building a jail with a capacity of 1,000 beds — not because that many are needed now, but because they will be in the future. The initial jail population would be about 750. That's smart. It makes little sense to pinch pennies and build a jail that would be too small soon after it's built.

Beyond that, the old jail's design is outdated, making it inefficient to run, which means the county spends more on staffing than it should given the number of prisoners.

Crime ranks high on the list of concerns among community residents. A new, larger jail won't make crime disappear, but it would eliminate the problem of people getting arrested and immediately released because of overcrowding. That would cut down on the number of those people roaming the streets. It would also help the court system function more effectively. People cited to appear in court often don't bother, knowing they're not likely to spend much time behind bars, and a judge then issues an arrest warrant. As a result, the county has 11,000 outstanding warrants.

The revolving door syndrome also reduces the effectiveness of alcohol and drug treatment and other programs the jail can offer. As it stands now, prisoners frequently are not behind bars long enough to benefit from those programs, which have the potential to reduce the number of inmates who re-offend after being released.

It's never fun to pay more taxes. But government services, including jails to keep criminals off the streets, aren't free. Weigh the cost against the value of a safer community before dismissing the idea out of hand.

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