Jail Levy Debate: Our Verdict

Benton County has been making the case for a new jail for years now, and their best chance at making their dreams of penitentiary perfection a reality sits on ballots that will soon be mailed. In the lead-up to the vote, Benton County officials and their opponents have taken to public forum to influence and inform voters’ decisions through a series of debates and public appearances. Attending these forums, we have also interviewed the relevant county personnel and waded through current and proposed budgets, cost estimates, and a number of county-generated reports. Our goal: a neat little package for your perusal as you prepare to cast your vote.

The Facts
Benton County is proposing a 110-bed facility with a 20-bed work release program. They promise a number of improvements to existing services along with new rehabilitation services and a mental health component. The current jail, located in the heart of downtown Corvallis, only holds 40 beds. Given offender and gender mixes, it is usually considered full at around 25 beds and lacks services for its inmates. The proposed location of the new jail is the site of an old lumber mill located at N 19th Street in Philomath. This facility would be funded through a bond measure placed on the ballot in November.

It should come as no surprise that we’re talking big numbers when it comes to building this brand new jail. The big figure that the average taxpayer will want to look at is the $25 million total (the full estimated amount stands at $26,670,922 but is subject to change and refinement). That $25 million collects construction costs, land purchase costs, all the various land improvement costs, and demolition costs for the old jail downtown. The current proposal slates the construction start date as spring 2016, with an expectation of the facility being occupied in 2018.

It should be noted that another $11 million is expected to be added to that total in interest. Another expense of note comes in the form of an operations levy that funds the Benton County Sheriff Department, which currently sits at $4.4 million and will see minimal change with the new jail; continuation of this levy goes before voters every five years.

If passed, county residents would see a property tax surcharge for the next 21 years of approximately $26 per $100,000 of assessed value.

The Opposition
Benton County won’t be taking the easy street between now and November, as a number of concerned citizens have valid arguments in place against the proposed facility. If there were to be an opposition leader, the task would land on the shoulders of David Grappo, the chairman of Citizens Against a New Jail. Grappo has been a panelist at the City Club debates and has taken it upon himself to dissuade voters from pushing this bond measure through in November.

The opposition’s main argument lies in the fact that Corvallis is an inherently safe community, one of the safest in the nation, they purport. In the 2013 safety and security rankings from Farmers Insurance, Corvallis was ranked as the number one most secure city with a population under 150,000. The Farmers Insurance ranking criteria include economic stability, crime statistics, extreme weather, risk of natural disasters, housing depreciation, foreclosures, air quality, environmental hazards, life expectancy, motor vehicle fatalities, and employment numbers. While crime may only be a portion of this study’s focus, it is backed up by local statistics as well. Corvallis ranks well against its neighbors in regards to property crime, but actually ranks as a higher risk than Albany when it comes to person-to-person violent crime.

Grappo and the opposition also state that the county may be looking to spend money unnecessarily. As it stands today, Benton County spends less per inmate than the state average but will look to spend just above it with the new jail. There are also a number of other areas of focus that the county may consider funneling some cash into in the years to come, like the improvement of local mental health services and the ongoing battle with homelessness in the area.

Opposition leaders propose that Benton County continue to rent out beds, as it currently does with neighboring counties, even going so far as to say that we should move to renting all necessary beds from outside our county. Benton County currently spends around $2 million on rental alone for around 40 beds. While such an idea is worth considering, and would actually be a potential solution should the bond measure not pass, this is only possible if our neighboring counties have the space for it.

But beyond anything else, the opposition seems to lean on the safety of our humble burg as its main argument. It’s simple. Corvallis is a safe place, it has been a safe place for a long time, and we don’t need to spend $25 million to make a safe place safer. In public forums, the opposition has cited studies, praised the sheriff and his cohorts for doing a good job, but in the end, seems to rely on the good old mantra “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Support
Supporters of the new jail have one thing to say in response to the idea that a new jail is unnecessary: “It is broke and it needs fixing.” The main core of supporters of the new jail include Benton County Circuit Court Judge David B. Connell, Benton County Sheriff Scott Jackson, and District Attorney John Haroldson. Some of them have been featured  at public forums and debates in support of the new jail, as a means to improve their ability to keep our town safe.

All of the arguments in support of the new jail seem to center around one simple idea. The current jail is limiting what our criminal justice system can do and those limitations have drastic ripple effects on our community.

Those limitations start with sentencing. Newly arrested criminals are brought in for their sentencing at the courthouse, where Judge Connell waits. More often than not, the jail is already full by the time the judge presides over a line of criminals awaiting sentencing. At this point, Judge Connell can only prescribe a new court date and send them on their way, letting offenders back into the community, where they occasionally recommit crimes. Because why not? In Corvallis, you commit the crime and you don’t do the time.

Our current system could be described, fairly consistently, as one of catch and release. We grab offenders, are faced with a full jail, and can do nothing to punish or help them. One of the goals Judge Connell hopes to achieve with the new jail is to give offenders “a taste of jail” through their planned work-release program. With a work-release program, offenders will be able to maintain their jobs while experiencing the unpleasantness of jail, which should keep them out of jail in the future.

On top of that, the promise of proper sentencing within the new jail should expand the abilities of the rehabilitative services provided by the Benton County Sheriff’s Department. As it stands, the average stay for an inmate is one to two weeks, which is mostly the fault of their inability to sentence people properly. With such a short stay, inmates can just barely get started with things like Drug Treatment Court. Within the new jail, they can monitor and maintain inmates through the entire rehabilitation process.

Benton County officials realize that this proposal can be a lot to consider. The amount of $25 million is no chump change and if things are manageable as they are, why not keep things the way they are? The county’s simple answer is that it truly isn’t sustainable in the long term. With the rise of violent crime and the city’s deteriorating reputation, Corvallis may not hold its status as “safe” for much longer.

Grappo and his safety-statistics crew will tell you that an unnecessary amount of money will be spent on a facility we don’t need. Jackson and his team will tell you that Corvallis needs this jail to sustain a future of safety and to progress rehabilitation efforts.

Wherever you land on the topic, the fact remains that something needs to be done to solve the issues facing our local criminal justice system. Whether that comes in the form of a shiny, brand new jail or an austere future where we ship our criminals out of the county remains to be seen, but we should be completely transparent with you.

As a paper, we believe that increased enforcement is needed. The fact that our city is seen as lax when it comes to jailing bad guys is an often reported demonstrable driver for increased crime. Previous reporting finds our county sheriff’s office materially dedicated to rehabilitation. For instance, their current program of paying rents and counseling fees for released inmates as they get back on their feet has changed lives.

County officials are becoming increasingly concerned with mental health issues generally and see a new jail facility as an essential means of catching up with people that can be offered help rather than a revolving door.

The new jail will cause local taxpayers to do some digging into their pockets, but will pay off for years to come.

But don’t just take our word for it. Educate yourself, form an opinion, and make sure you actually do something about it and vote when the ballot hits your mailbox.

By Nathan Hermanson