Jail survey is a beginning, not the end

Last month, we urged Jackson County residents to consider the importance of a safe community before rejecting the idea of a tax levy to build a new jail. They may have considered it, but a survey shows a construction bond would fail, 54 percent to 44 percent, and a new taxing district to operate a new jail would be trounced, 71 percent to 27 percent.

The same survey showed crime was county residents’ top concern. Drug-related crimes and mental health and addiction services also made the list. But it’s awfully tough to fight crime if you don’t have enough room to put offenders behind bars. And keeping them there means they’ll get the drug treatment programs they need.

The survey results aren’t a surprise. No one likes paying more taxes, and the jail proposal as currently structured would cost the owner of a house assessed at $200,000 an extra $218 a year in property taxes.

To their credit, county commissioners aren’t throwing up their hands and declaring there’s nothing they can do. What they must do, if they want to address the glaring need for new jail space, is explain to county residents why it’s important. They should also look at ways to trim costs.

At this point, the proposal is to build a 1,000-bed jail, although county officials say only 750 beds would be used initially. The thinking is that it will be less costly to build excess capacity now rather than face the same crunch in the future when more jail beds are needed. But it may be that voters would be more likely to support a less ambitious project.

The survey results for the construction project alone suggest an energetic campaign could reverse the outcome at the polls. The survey just completed was not large — only 329 voters — and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points. When respondents were given information about the need for a new jail, the 44 percent in favor of the construction levy grew to 46, and the respondents opposing it fell from 54 percent to 52. With a concerted public education campaign, the margin of error puts passage of the construction levy within reach.

The taxing district proposed to provide operating funds faces stiffer opposition, but even there, more information changed some minds.

After determining the least costly option that would address the space problem, county leaders should work to convince voters of the need for this project. And that means all criminal justice officials, not just the commissioners.

Sheriff Nate Sickler says he plans to continue speaking to community groups about the need for a new jail. Commissioner Bob Strosser says other police agencies, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys should get involved as well. He’s right.

If there is a real need for a new county jail — and we believe there is — elected leaders and criminal justice professionals should make the case to voters.

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