By Eric Althoff
MEDFORD, Ore. — A new 800-bed jail for Oregon’s Jackson County will come with a price of $166 million, according to a report in the Mail Tribune, which said that a new tax would generate up to $100 million of the price, with the remainder covered by Jackson County itself. The county has already spent $6 million to acquire the land needed for the new prison.
Sheriff Nathan Sickler believes the new jail is an absolute necessity, and says that a newer and larger facility will reduce overcrowding in this area of southern Oregon.
“An 800-bed facility really means we’ll be housing a maximum of 650 if we have to,” Sickler said in a phone conversation with Correctional News. “But when you look at best practices for operating a correctional facility, you want to be at 15 [percent] to 20 percent under your max bed space for treatment and programing.”
Due to staffing issues, Jackson County had to reduce its previous complement of jail beds by over 60, Sickler said, nudging the previous possible capacity down to 230. This caused the county to “force release” some 5,500 people a year, on average, before they could ever appear in court.
“The lodging spiked, the warrants spiked, the forced releases spiked…so we see firsthand some tangible evidence that additional bed space does provide relief to our criminal justice system,” Sickler said, adding that he believes having a facility large enough to avoid revolving-door prisons actually leads to a smaller jail population overall.
“In 2017, about 13,600 warrants were issued between my agency and the municipalities and the Medford Police Department, and most of those were for fail to appear, so space is paramount,” Sickler said. “We’re not looking at this as an opportunity to put people in there and leave them there.”
Despite some backlash to the proposed new tax, Sickler believes the expanded jail will be better for the community in the long term, with fewer dangerous individuals being let lose back onto the streets, and those who need stabilization for drug problems or mental health episodes getting the help they need when admitted.
“This is really the only way that you’re guaranteed to run a facility into the future. You could use reserve funds, but that would winnow quickly and then we’re at zero,” Sickler said of the need for the tax.
He said that, if passed in November, the taxpayers of Jackson County would wind up paying only 43 cents per day to fund the new jail.
“To me that’s not that extreme when you look at what the revolving door of our jail is doing to our community and how we’re trying to work on that,” he said.
“The goal is not to fill [the jail] but to have a lot of vacancies, because people don’t want to go there,” Sickler said. “But if they do, we get them stabilized and hopefully have them not come back.
“It’s an investment, and that’s how we look at it.”