Say No to the Douglas County Jail Expansion

cropped-jm-no-jail-slogan-012218-1This is the public comment that I gave to the Douglas County Commission on February 20, 2019, regarding their proposal to hire a construction manager for the jail expansion project:

The Douglas County jail population has grown 15 times faster than our general population since 2011. And I have not heard any good explanations as to why.

Last week, I observed a first appearances court session, Judge George presiding. Some accused people were there in person, and some were in jail, appearing via TV. Those in jail had no legal counsel at this hearing—the court appointed them an attorney at this first hearing. Two of the men I heard had bonds set at 7,000 and 6,000—amounts neither could afford. The DA’s office claimed that one man had an arrest record in Georgia, a state the accused claims he had never been to—but without a lawyer it was his word against the DA’s.

One person was released on an OR bond, meaning he could leave jail without having to pay any money—but he had been kept in jail overnight for driving on a suspended license. And, I understand that there are many people in our county jail for driving on a suspended—which is not related to safety, but merely to inability to pay certain fines and fees. But of course taking away people’s means of transportation doesn’t help them pay those fees. And putting them in jail most often means that we, as a community, spend a lot more money “housing” them than they owe in fines and fees in the first place.

Friends who have attended the municipal court payment review hearings met a woman who stole two bags of chips from WalMart three years ago – missed a court date due to the birth of her child – and is still caught up in a system of court dates and fines and fees.

A friend who went to first appearances court Tuesday—after a 3-day weekend—heard a woman begging to be let out so she wouldn’t lose her job. And another woman struggling to understand what the terms of her release would mean through a Spanish interpreter. And, by the way, the judge was told that there are no documents that have been translated into Spanish, where someone could, for example, check off the release criteria that applied to a particular accused person.

It is my observation that the criminal justice system is broken. Yes, it is broken at the national level and the state level. But there are also things we can do right here in Douglas County with our own resources, our own imagination, our own initiative, and our own commitment to the progressive, compassionate values of this community.

This commitment to a new, better approach to criminal justice in our county was expressed by the voters who voted down the original Prop 1 proposal that would have funded a jail expansion and a mental health crisis center and then turned around and voted overwhelmingly for the crisis center only bill.

But this commitment to a new, better approach to criminal justice is not reflected in putting county money into hiring a construction manager for a jail expansion project. Because a jail expansion is merely the easiest way to address the jail overcrowding. It is not the best way—not the most cost efficient, not the most effective, and certainly not the most just.

The best way takes some vision and some research and some willingness to do things differently. The best way means giving money to social service agencies instead of architectural firms; hiring case workers and doctors and mental health workers instead of a construction manager.

As a county, this problem of jail overcrowding is pushing us to do something about criminal justice in Douglas County. We can choose a jail expansion, which will simply enable the dysfunction to continue, or we can take this opportunity to work towards a system that better reflects the values we share: values of equity, justice, and compassion.

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