In Our View: Jail Sticker Shock

The Clark County Jail needs upgrades but do we pay now or more down the road?

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In the wake of proposals regarding the future of the Clark County Jail, Corrections Chief Ric Bishop spoke for many local residents.

“I know I had sticker shock,” Bishop said regarding a presentation from DLR Group, which was hired by the county to assess the needs of the jail. And while Bishop’s declaration undoubtedly resonated with taxpayers, so did the summation by county chairman Marc Boldt, who said now it’s time for a community discussion.

Indeed. The preferred option for the jail ,as presented by the consulting firm would, cost between $268 million and $284 million to bring the facility up to industry square-foot standards and increase the bed count to 1,028 by 2022.

The need for renovations to the jail, which is located near downtown Vancouver, is evident. The county’s population is expanding, and that growth impacts all county services. The jail has a capacity of 793 beds, and a report released last month by DLR estimates that somewhere between 1,109 beds and 1,260 beds will be required 20 years from now.

This cannot be ignored. While it is human nature to have little concern about the fate of people whose actions landed them behind bars, the fact is that an effective incarceration system protects all residents. Public safety would be compromised by an inadequate jail that leads to the early release of large numbers of inmates, and an overcrowded facility limits the services that can be provided to help keep offenders from becoming re-offenders.

Equally important, as The Columbian wrote editorially last month: “If a family member were a jail employee, what kind of facility would you desire their work place to be? Would you want them to feel unsafe in an overcrowded and outdated facility, or would you want it to have the latest in safety precautions?”

So, something must be done about the Clark County Jail, and it must be done before the situation becomes critical. Most important, it must be done with an eye to the future in order to create a jail that will protect residents for decades to come.

One plan presented by the consulting group involves a bare-bones solution, costing an estimated $63 million to $67 million for renovation. DLR representatives said this would fall short of the goals for increasing space and bed count. Judging solely from the price tag, this likely would be most palatable to taxpayers, but it must be noted that trying to be economical now typically increases costs down the road. We can pay for it now, or pay more for it later.

A second plan would cost between $253 million and $268 million to add new buildings for administration and inmate housing. The plan would nearly meet the goals for capacity and beds, but Bishop warned that the layout would create safety concerns for deputies. This plan will require further examination, but if Bishop is correct about the risks, it should be rejected. Deputy safety must be of paramount importance.

The preferred plan, as determined by the consulting company, could be phased in over time to reduce initial costs. But representatives warned that such an approach could increase construction costs in the long run.

All of which brings us to the much-needed public discussion. Details of the proposals can be found online (http://tinyurl.com/l9fffme), and residents should become informed about the issue and make their opinions known.

Sooner or later, Clark County residents are going to be handed a bill for their jail; it would be best if that does not result in sticker shock.