County needs more than new jail

Published 12:50 am Sunday, July 12, 2015

It seems Lawrence County is in a predicament. And that predicament is whether it can be fiscally responsible and socially responsible at the same time.

Moving the county jail to the former Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Scioto County would solve the long-standing problem of overcrowding at the aging facility. Paying for the move would cost more than $1 million over the sheriff’s existing budget — not a fiscally responsible move considering that money doesn’t seem to exist.

Not moving the jail means the census at the jail continues to grow. Inmates will continue to be cramped in a facility designed only for a fraction of the number normally housed there. When an inmate gets hurt, sick or a fight breaks out, the two corrections officers on shift will be way outnumbered and floundering. Not socially responsible.

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At the end of the month, state inspectors will return to fail the jail yet again. When they see no effort has been made to correct the issues for which it fails year after year, will the state file a complaint to shut the jail down? Probably.

There has been little public discussion as to whether the commissioners will allow voters to decide if they want to pay for a new jail with a levy or approve a bond to finance construction of a facility. And two commissioners have said they don’t think it’s possible to move the jail to the ORV.

Where is the solution?

Maybe it’s time to take a different approach at relieving the overcrowding.

Crime is showing no signs of slowing down, especially drug-related ones, and whether the county gets a new jail won’t do anything to decrease the number of people being arrested. Diversion programs, however, could.

Many counties across the country, for example, use diversion programs to keep fewer inmates incarcerated at taxpayer expense. In Jackson County, a drug court program was started in 2009. Eligible inmates participate in a 19-month substance abuse program supervised by a judge, a group of counselors specializing in drug and mental health services, a drug court public defender and members of a probation department.

That court was awarded a $350,000 grant from the Department of Justice’s Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program to keep the court going. Funding is out there for communities that show a real interest in keeping criminals from reoffending. Lawrence County officials need to look into those alternative methods of funding to reduce the county’s over-reliance on the jail.

Jail is only a short-term solution for getting drug offenders off the streets. Addicts who don’t get treatment will be back to breaking the law to support their habits and find themselves in jail again.

Keeping Lawrence County safe doesn’t begin and end with the arrest-conviction-incarceration cycle. The daily jail census is proof of that.

It’s time for county leaders to look at what it takes to make positive changes that will last. If they can’t, voters should make their voices heard at the polls.