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The crowded conditions at the Washington County jail are certainly no figment of anyone's imagination.

When the $23.75 million jail opened in 2005 with a stated capacity of about 750 inmates, its population barely broke 200 the first week. County officials had crammed about 240 into its previous jail, originally built in 1988 to hold 88 inmates. So Washington County has a bit of a history with jails: Build it and it shall be filled.

What’s the point?

Alternatives to jail time must be rooted in concern for changes in inmates’ lives by modifying their behaviors, not just by a drive to avoid a sales tax and a costly jail expansion.

Believe it or not, the 14-year-old jail is not now capable of holding all the people local law enforcement agencies send its way. By 2008, Sheriff Tim Helder had begun talks of expanding, but over the last decade, other demands have prevented that idea from moving forward.

Most recently, however, Helder has again pushed for more space. In October, the Quorum Court asked Helder to return early this year with a $30 million expansion plan potentially funded with a sales tax increase, but its members have seemed skittish about embracing a opportunity to ask voters for a new tax and a major new capital expenditure. Helder has called the expansion, now estimated around $38 million, "the responsible thing to do" that should not be delayed any longer.

To this mix add a robust discussion of late about alternatives to a costly expansion of the jail. About 50 people showed up at a recent Jail/ Law Enforcement/Courts Committee, with several speakers urge committee members to look at ways to reduce crowding without expanding. They propose bail reform to reduce instances of people remaining in jail solely because they cannot afford bond; using more electronic monitoring instead of incarceration; expansion of drug and alcohol treatment programs; and more use of mental health treatment programs.

The sheriff and Prosecutor Matt Durrett have both said the county has already implemented many of the suggestions to the extent they can be. Other inmates need to be in jail due to the nature of their crimes or their history of not following court orders.

It is, of course, the Quorum Court that has to be convinced that all measures to reduce the jail population have been tried. If there are alternatives to jail time that have not been attempted, it's important to realize they will not succeed if they're motivated solely as a way to avoid a tax increase. Rather, such programming must be inspired by a drive to make a difference in people's lives to the extent that crime and drugs are resisted.

The avoidance of sending someone to jail will hardly ever change behaviors, so the problem persists.

If the Quorum Court is reticent to embrace a jail expansion, its answer cannot just be "no." It's got to be "Here's another solution."

Commentary on 04/16/2019

Print Headline: Seeking alternatives

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