Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Commission makes no recommendation on county jail

Members promise report in August outlining what they’d like to see in new or revamped facility

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

A blue-ribbon committee tasked with evaluating the county’s aging jail decided Tuesday to end its work without making a recommendation to the county council on replacing the facility, after realizing housing one inmate for one day would cost up to $231, more than double the current cost.

Since being formed 18 months ago, the panel agreed that the decades-old jail needs to be replaced. It even agreed that the new jail will need 850 to 880 beds and upon how inmates should be supervised.

But reeling from recent cost estimates and with little desire to further extend its work, the Correctional Facility Advisory Commission on Tuesday agreed not to make a recommendation to the Clark County Council on an option to replace the current facilities.

“I’m willing to stay the course and work through this,” said Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, a member of the commission. “I just don’t know that what we are going to take the (county council) is going to give them the answer they’re looking for. I think there’s a lot more to be done.”

The two jail replacement options considered by the commission were both deemed to be too costly, particularly to cities in Clark County that would see their cost of housing inmates rise substantially.

During Tuesday’s meeting, members of the commission seemed willing to reconsider some of the conclusions they had reached earlier, or to remodel the current jail at a lower cost. Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer and a member of the commission, remarked that the problem may have been that the group discussed its values for a new jail without appreciating the cost implications.

Craig Pridemore, CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services and chair of the commission, said that if the group didn’t stick to its timeline of delivering a report to the county council this summer, it could mean extending its work another six to 12 months.

“The real question before us: Is there something in the past 18 months that the (committee) can agree to forward to the county council for how they address the issue?” he said.

It turned out there was. Panelists agreed to deliver a report to the county council in August that will outline what the commission, a broad cross-section of community and elected leaders, would like to see in a new or revamped jail. The commission also agreed that its work should continue in the form of a smaller, more narrowly focused committee as the county considers the issue.

According to materials at Tuesday’s meeting, the report will include an estimated jail capacity and will call for specific infrastructure improvements to aid screening and booking processes while providing better services to inmates.

The report will also voice support for policies intended to reduce the current jail’s population using pre-trial risk assessments, reducing the time for competency restoration holds and increased use of book-and-hold for certain defendants. Additionally, the report will express support for re-entry programs intended to address underlying substance abuse or mental health issues of inmates. Another recommendation in the report is for the facility to incorporate “sustainable and resilient capital and operating costs” and have the support of voters, who will likely be asked to support a bond to pay for it.

Sticker shocked

Earlier this spring, the commission narrowed its options for replacing the jail to two options, neither of which appeared financially viable.

The first involved replacing the jail at its existing site on West 13th Street in Vancouver and moving inmates at the work center on Lower River Road to the main facility. The second option would have kept and renovated both sites.

When the operating costs for both sites were presented earlier this month, members of the commission, which includes city managers and councilors, balked. Currently, running the jail costs $27.3 million per year. Under the first scenario, that figure would rise to $46.2 million per year. The second scenario would see costs increase to $60.7 million per year.

Those costs would have been passed along to city police departments, which are billed for jailing inmates. The cost of housing a single inmate would increase from the current $110 per day to $175 or $231, depending on the option.

“And it was quickly determined by this group that those costs were untenable,” said Erik Jensen, a consultant hired to facilitate the commission’s work.

The primary driver in each of the replacement jail’s operating costs is increased personnel costs. In response to the commission’s sticker shock, Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop reworked the first option to have 21 fewer positions. But that only reduced the cost to $169 per inmate per day.

A second look

Faced with the unexpectedly high cost, members of the commission expressed interest in remodeling the existing the jail to upgrade the intake and medical areas while making other improvements to allow more reentry services for inmates. The reentry services help reduce recidivism.

Whether inmates and guards should mingle in the same room is a major unanswered question. Currently, the jail only offers direct supervision in one area of the jail.

Early on, the commission agreed that the new jail should be built for a direct-supervision model of inmates. It’s been credited with producing calmer settings. The model has steadily caught on and is in use in the jail in Washington County, Ore., which the commission toured.

In a more notable exchange, Melnick, the county’s health officer, questioned if the model was worth pursuing. He said that his review of the literature found little evidence that it works. Bishop said that the average length of stay for an inmate is 18 days. Melnick questioned was worth the added personnel costs that come with direct supervision.

“We are talking about spending a lot of funding for something that doesn’t have a whole lot of evidence and people are not exposed for an extended period of time,” said Melnick.

Bishop said that he had visited more than 30 facilities in the last six years.

“There are less problems and we are in charge versus the inmates,” said Bishop.

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