As anybody who has watched TV’s “Law & Order” knows, in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.
While those words opened each episode and effectively set the tone for the drama to follow, they ignored a key piece of the criminal justice system — incarceration. It is one thing to identify the bad guys who commit crimes and hold them accountable; it is another to ensure the safety of the public beyond that.
All of which means that Clark County officials and residents need to have a serious discussion about the Clark County Jail. The 33-year-old facility in downtown Vancouver is in need of expansion or, perhaps, replacement in order to position the county for the future.
A report released last week by facilities consulting firm DLR Group, which the county signed to a $300,000 contract, provided a blueprint for that discussion. Among the projections is that the jail, which currently has 793 beds, will need at least 1,109 beds by 2036. In addition, the study projected that Clark County will need a facility with 366,564 square feet — quite a difference from its current 124,318 square feet.
This is not a suggestion that Clark County will suddenly be overrun with criminals who need to be locked up. It is simply an acknowledgement that the county’s population is growing rapidly, and that such growth brings with it a need for more jail space. In addition, many of the areas inside the facility — specifically the detox, intake, security, housing, and staff meeting and training areas — already are cramped.
In the good news column is the fact that consultants found the infrastructure of the building to be in pretty good shape. The parking lot and the groundwater and stormwater systems fell into the “performing well” category, but several other systems were deemed in need of repair or replacement. In one example, it was noted that the jail doors must be replaced, and the fact that those doors no longer are manufactured has led to jerry-rigged repairs.
The question, of course, is how much all of this will cost. At this point, that is unknown, and another study that answers those questions is expected to be released soon.
Jails can be tricky when it comes to convincing the public of the need to spend money. It often is easy to sell people on the notion of increasing funding for law enforcement or prosecution — those items are readily understood as crucial to public safety. But jails often operate out of sight and out of mind of taxpayers, who have little understanding of what goes on there other than people get locked up so they cannot commit more crimes. There also is an understandable public desire for no-frills accommodations for inmates. Most people are not concerned if inmates have cramped and uncomfortable facilities.
But allow us to turn that around. Instead of looking at the jail from the standpoint of those facing charges, we should look at it from the viewpoint of employees. 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?
We’re guessing we know the answer, and that answer speaks to why it’s time for a discussion about updating the Clark County Jail.