Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Future jail will have 800-plus beds, room to grow

Commission’s goal to expand facility’s capacity relies on a host of variables

By , Columbian political reporter

An advisory panel of Clark County leaders tasked with developing a recommendation to replace or upgrade the county’s aging and overcrowded jail has come to a key conclusion that’ll likely shape the future facility.

Last week, the 24-member Correction Facility Advisory Commission determined it would move forward under the assumption that the jail will need 850 to 880 beds by 2050, up from 590 now. The determination will guide the rest of the commission’s work, which is scheduled to wrap up this summer. The projected number of beds the jail will need relies on variables that could change.

Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring welcomed the development.

“They chose the upper end of the range for beds, and I believe that is wise, as this new facility will have to serve the county for many years to come,” Quiring said in a text message.

Craig Pridemore, the commission’s chair, said the number of beds the jail will require is a critical question that the group extended its timeframe to answer. If a new jail is too small, Pridemore said, the same problems will arise. But he said if the new jail is too large, its operating costs could become a burden for the county, similar to Multnomah County’s never-opened Wapato Jail.

To answer the question of how many beds the jail will need, the commission appointed a subcommittee that worked with Justice System Partners, a consultant contracted with the city of Vancouver. The subcommittee looked at “policy levers,” or variables that could affect the jail’s future population.

“There are so many variables that are beyond our control,” said Superior Court Judge Scott Collier, who served on the subcommittee. He said the Legislature and local policymakers could upend assumptions underpinning the future jail bed projections.

Collier said one variable is that the county is likely to hold some repeat offenders in jail longer rather than cycling them through a “revolving door.”

He said a variable that would decrease the jail’s population is a bill passed recently by the Legislature in response to the Trueblood court case that determined incarcerated individuals with behavioral health disorders have a constitutional right to timely competency evaluations and restoration services.

Collier also said the sheriff’s office is expected to rent out fewer beds to the state Department of Corrections for individuals outside of Clark County. Lastly, he said Clark County is following a national movement to release more offenders before trial with supervision, with the goal of not increasing risk to the community. Collier, speaking for himself, said he views this variable as being the one most subject to change.

Building in scalability

Clark County’s jail opened in 1984, and the county began taking a hard look at the facility following jail deaths in 2012 and a fire in 2015. Two years ago, DLR Group, a facilities consulting firm, told the county the jail needs 366,564 square feet to meet industry best practices but has 124,318 square feet (excluding its work center). The study projected the county would need to have 1,109 to 1,260 jail beds by 2036.

Pridemore noted the commission’s bed projection number is lower than DLR’s recommendation. But he said the estimate accepted by the commission was on the higher side of the range considered by the subcommittee. He added that the commission will recommend building a jail that could be enlarged if there is a need to expand.

“One of the key values we adopted early on was that we would have a design capability for scalability,” said Pridemore.

Based on assumptions

Corrections Chief Ric Bishop said he appreciated the work of the commission and that the projected beds should be accurate if “all the assumptions remain constant.”

He said other qualifiers include the continued growth of the county’s population at the projected rate and continued support for inmates who want to break the cycle of recidivism. He also said the jail could be affected by the Legislature’s decision to criminalize or decriminalize certain activities.

“The whole of Clark County is going to have to be vigilant about this number and the resources that are put forward,” he said.

The DLR study put the jail’s bed capacity at 793. Since then, that number has dropped to 590. Bishop said the county lost beds at the Jail Work Center, a minimum-security facility on Northwest Lower River Road, where a planned crisis triage center will be built. He said the jail closed its H pod for overnight use and is now using it for re-entry programs that the sheriff’s office has been seeking to expand. Additionally, he said, the jail adopted a policy of requesting site release for misdemeanor offenses, such as shoplifters.

The jail’s current average daily population is 635. He said the jail uses temporary bunks or places inmates on the floor if needed. Bishop, in a follow-up email, said that the jail reduced its population not only because of the loss of the beds at the work center and H pod but also to improve conditions and balance safety.

“Five hundred and ninety is the proper number of beds for what we feel we can adequately house,” he said.

Pridemore said the next steps for the commission will be to decide how much the county should use the Jail Work Center over the existing jail site. He said the commission should deliver a report to the county council in late July.