Sustaining the County Jail

Business as usual will become even more costly

Having worked in two jails and one federal prison, I understand the importance of adequate institutional staffing for safety, security and efficiency. But in conjunction with deliberations about whether to support a tax levy to increase jail funding, I believe citizens would do well to contact their county commissioners about how any short-term funding solution should be coupled with a plan to rein in correctional costs that otherwise will undoubtedly only increase over time.

The current tax proposal would already require maintaining 255 jail beds, even if the levy is not sufficient to cover the costs (at which point there would be a need to tap into general funds that might impact provision of other social services). In short, there are many more people who could be incarcerated if jail capacity increases, and just increasing capacity will “grow the business” and quite likely require more overhead and requisitions later on. In this regard, there is even the real risk that future tax revenues could decrease because of changes in Lane County’s economy. A solution to the current problem, then, would do well to actively pursue steps to reduce jail space demands and lower costs.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce jail space demand and lower correctional costs:

• Consider increased use of house arrests (ankle bracelets) to decrease use of jail space.

• Maximize a pretrial services program to allow selected individuals to be out of jail on supervised release (checking in with the probation office daily) while awaiting court dates. Other community agencies around the country are currently using screening tools to determine which individuals are good candidates for remaining out of jail while awaiting the trial process.

• Consider turning several expensive county jails into a regional jail, potentially with oversight from the state to avoid jurisdictional dispute.

• Review medical delivery system procedures for potentially significant cost savings. One county jail received large savings by having the medical provider of services cut costs by installing an x-ray machine, EKG and increasing physician presence in the jail, which all helped to reduce unnecessary care and transports to a hospital. Review of policies and procedures for the purchase and administration of medications (perhaps especially psychotropics and pain medications) may also help reduce costs.

• Promote alternatives to incarceration, where appropriate (nonviolent crimes), with options including the use of mandated counseling, restitution, fines and community service.

• Develop sustainable jail projects. The Multnomah County Sustainable Jail Project, for example, reports achieving a savings of $400,000 by switching supplies from disposable to reusable cups; using recycled twine to wrap laundry; and capturing, treating and recycling water used to wash clothes and bedding. A number of its upcoming objectives include saving money by digitizing the law library, decreasing jail energy and working with food contractors to buy more local food.

• A vegetable garden planted and maintained by county inmates and correctional staff could save significant money on inmate meals.

• Find ways to reduce costly and unnecessary overtime pay.

Whether voting for or against the current county jail tax measure, the citizens of Lane County need to see plans developed and implemented that offer alternatives to incarceration and that will lower jail costs. As good as the current jail system may be, there is always room for improvement, and all relevant parties involved in the correctional system and its funding should be finding new ways to make the system more efficient and cost-effective. Without efforts to make significant changes in “business as usual” — and even more so if the economy doesn’t improve enough to increase tax revenues over the next five years — one can only expect that there would be a need to support a higher number of jail inmates at an even greater cost per inmate once a five-year levy period might be done. — Leonard Epstein

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