Published in The Democratic Gazette, October 30, 2021.
Recently, Washington County officials had a quiet meeting to review eight businesses that hope to earn over $25 million of Washington County's $46 million American Rescue Plan dividend by expanding the jail. Never mind the additional dollars taxpayers would be on the hook for in staffing.
County government continues the imbalance of justice by providing the public defender's office fewer resources than prosecutors, meaning "the least of these" have even less help when they face difficult challenges.
County government is trying to keep its juvenile judges from appropriately staffing their courts. The state recognized Washington and Madison counties needed another judge. The county is attempting to hamstring both juvenile judges by allocating only part of the staff requested, reducing services to at-risk youth. The juvenile court has diversion programs to keep kids out of lock-up and help them thrive. If these judges must cut staff, those programs will be less effective, if they exist at all. This will increase in the number of incarcerated children and rebuild the school-to-prison pipeline.
The county attorney and county judge have been aware of the dangerously understaffed juvenile detention center for half a year. The issue is only now being addressed, thanks to the sheriff's proposal for premium pay for both juvenile and adult detention officers.
This supermajority Quorum Court is asking two female judges to figure it out and "get along" to save the county a mere $400,000, while falling over themselves to get the male sheriff his new jail expansion.
Two years ago, as a community-driven response to avoid a jail expansion, we spent $60,000 for the National Center for State Courts to assess our local criminal justice system. We have hardly implemented any of its recommendations to alleviate overcrowding. Among their recommendations were more transparency and communication (see Paragraph 1), creating a criminal justice coordinating committee (in operation for a year but only now provided with a much-needed full-time coordinator), ensuring balance between public defender and prosecutor offices (see paragraph 2), providing more behavioral health programs, pre-trial services (our jail is overcrowded because people presumed innocent cannot afford bail) and mental health courts (look to Craighead County's example), and on and on. Our local judges want to divert people from jail and into truly rehabilitative services, but lack enough options.
Contact County Judge Joseph Wood and your justice of the peace now! Let them know you are concerned about how they plan to spend your covid relief money. Go to the Nov. 18 Quorum Court meeting and voice your thoughts! They will be finalizing the 2022 budget and might be taking next steps in the jail expansion. We the People should decide how we move forward. Expanding the jail only ensures that we will waste more tax dollars and ruin more local families. There has been a nationwide bipartisan movement toward decarceration and we demand the same here.
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