Published in The Democratic Gazette, January 29, 2022
Expanding jail will not resolve root problems.
First of all, Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins (Letters, Jan. 25) is right that there is a crisis in the Washington County jail right now. It is overcrowded, people are sleeping on the floor, and he raises the point about supply chain disruption causing food storage to take up more space, an issue I hadn't considered but one that makes sense.
What he fails to mention is that he, along with the majority of the Quorum Court, voted against a jail expansion in 2019 because he didn't know how the county could pay for it without raising taxes. He and I agreed on that point at the time. In response, the Quorum Court opted to fund a $60,000 independent study by the National Center for State Courts, the results of which were published in August 2020 and can be found here.
At that time, the jail population was lower because of a well-organized, pandemic-inspired collaboration by the sheriff, other local law enforcement, prosecutor, public defender's office and circuit judges. Also at that time, rather than implement most of the recommendations made by the NCSC that would have sustainably alleviated overcrowding, the Quorum Court opted to kick the can down the road. These are data-driven recommendations that have seen success elsewhere, not "experimental" as Deakins states.
So here we are now. He mentioned that the Quorum Court passed a $250,000 spending measure using American Rescue Plan funds to plan for jail modifications. This is true. The assumption had also been that they could use the same funds to pay for the expansion. The Treasury published final guidelines earlier this month that stated this is not the case. In fact, the taxpayers of Washington County will likely be held accountable for the $250,000 already spent. That would also be the case for any expansion and resulting staffing increase. Not to mention, a jail expansion does not help us today. It helps with overcrowding in a couple years, then it will get full, then we'll have this same conversation in another 10 or 20 years.
However, the American Rescue Plan does allow for investing in proactive measures that would decrease incarceration now and into the future. Do we as a community feel safer because the jail is bursting at the seams? Are we all aware that the jail is overcrowded right now because over half of its population are too poor to buy their freedom? These people, innocent until proven guilty, are mostly accused of nonviolent offenses, and we taxpayers are paying their room and board and disrupting their lives because it's the easy thing to do.
At what point, will our leadership do what is difficult? Maybe when that leadership consists of different people.
Let's Change the World Together!