There has got to be a better, less expensive way

August 26, 2012 

We knew this day was coming. Before the new jail expansion (314 beds) was completed in 2007 at a cost of $40 million, it was already known that in five to seven years it would have to be expanded again. That day is here, unless we think differently.

Sheriff Jerry Modena has proposed to the Bibb County Commission that the old Virgil Powers school be turned into a 108-bed extension of the jail. The commissioners aren’t thrilled, and neither is the sheriff. The General Assembly in its infinite wisdom has pushed what was the state’s burden down to counties by raising the threshold of what qualifies as a state offense. The severity of the crimes hasn’t changed, just the punishment -- and who pays for it.

The state is already woefully below paying the actual cost of what it takes to keep an inmate housed at the LEC, and with the changes made at the state level, counties get a double-whammy. Lawmakers are discovering that all the law and order, toss them in jail and throw away the keys costs money. And taxpayers, while wanting to see justice served, are weary of the ever-expanding tax burden.

The costs associated with further expansion -- either at the Powers building or elsewhere -- lies behind the number of beds and spreads to the number of additional deputies needed to watch over the expanded facility, not to mention the cost of retrofitting the school to house prisoners.

It’s time the county and its courts and Sheriff’s Office employ pretrial justice techniques suggested by Commissioner Lonzy Edwards. We now lock up people who cannot make bond, rather than on their propensity to being a danger to themselves and the community. We lock up deadbeat dads for not paying child support, ensuring their continued arrears. It’s hard to work if you’re behind bars.

In a 2006 survey, the National Center for State Courts found that 76 percent of respondents thought more money should be pumped into prevention programs such as helping offenders find work. That compares to only 19 percent of respondents who thought it better to build more jails.

For the pretrial techniques to be used effectively “objective risk assessment” and bail recommendations should be employed. For example, offenders that present a low risk could be outfitted with monitor bracelets. Locking someone up, according to the NCSC, only increases the chances they will be locked up again once released.

The commission is right to look cock-eyed when presented with proposals for more jail beds. Where does it stop? If we keep doing things the way we have always done them -- building space to house offenders -- will never end.

-- For the Editorial Board

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