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March 2, 2024

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Commission presents 18-month study of Clark County Jail

Presentation to county council prompts more questions than answers

By , Columbian political reporter
3 Photos
The Clark County Law Enforcement Center opened in 1984 and is both antiquated and overcrowded.
The Clark County Law Enforcement Center opened in 1984 and is both antiquated and overcrowded. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A blue-ribbon commission tasked with recommending what to do with the county’s antiquated jail presented its report to the Clark County Council on Wednesday with the assumption that incarceration rates will continue to decline.

But with questions over the assumptions used in the report, the council didn’t throw its support behind any particular course of action for how to replace the facility, which opened in July 1984. Further study of how to replace the facility could be taken up by another county advisory committee.

“I can tell you that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a public policy challenge as difficult as this one is,” said commission chair Craig Pridemore, a former county commissioner and state senator who now serves as CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services.

Last year, the county council formed the Correction Facility Advisory Commission, made up of community leaders and stakeholders, in response to a consultant’s report that found that the jail had become overcrowded and ill-suited for many modern correctional practices.

After meeting for 18 months, the commission found that the jail needs to be replaced with a facility better suited to offer rehabilitative services. While the commission answered questions on the size and possible locations for a new jail, it stopped short of making a full recommendation after realizing the cost.

Over the summer, the commission had settled on two replacement scenarios, which would have cost approximately $381 million or $421 million to build. Annual operating costs were projected to be $46 million to $61 million for each respective scenario, significantly higher than the $27 million it currently costs to run the jail. Voters would be asked to approve a bond measure to replace the jail.

“There is no inexpensive solution to this problem,” said Pridemore.

Pridemore said that while he would have liked the commission to settle on a solution, he hoped that the report would provide the council with materials to move forward. The commission did reach multiple key findings:

• The current facility at 707 W. 13th St. and the work center on Northwest Lower River Road would work for future jail locations.

• The new jail will need between 850 and 880 beds through 2050, an increase from the current 590 beds available at the current jail and work center.

• The new jail should be modeled to meet the complex health care needs of inmates while also providing services that reduce recidivism. However, the report notes that adopting best practices in the new jail may be cost-prohibitive.

The report also notes that “there is a need for continuing engagement between key jail stakeholders and the county council.” It suggests the county council use the Law and Justice Council, an obscure Clark County advisory panel, to receive input and advice going forward.

“I believe we are the next task force,” said Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring, who added, “Now it goes to us.”

Council response

The report states that the estimated number of jail beds is based on “multiple assumptions,” including the adoption of criminal justice policies that “provide alternatives to incarceration.” Those assumptions, according to the report, are complicated and consider “prosecutorial and detention policy, community safety expectations, population and demographic trends, and availability of alternatives to incarceration.”

The report notes that the sheriff’s office has embraced programs aimed at reducing recidivism and that data shows inmate bookings have declined at an annualized rate of 3.24 percent over the last decade.

“We recognize in law enforcement, particularly going into the early 2000s, that were not able to arrest our way out of crime problems,” Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, a member of the commission, told the council. “It’s super-expensive; we’re seeing that here today.”

Many of the questions from the county council were aimed at assumptions used by the commission to forecast jail beds. Councilors called attention to how many of the factors affecting jail population are out of their control, such as the level of services provided and decisions made by judges or prosecutors.

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“I mean, you can’t tell the judge what he’s going to do with regard to bail,” said Councilor Julie Olson.

Early in its work, the jail commission embraced the direct supervision model, which has been increasingly adopted by correctional facilities and involves embedding officers with inmate populations. However, when confronted with its cost, the commission recommended the model be adopted “where financially feasible.”

The model has been credited with lowering jail incidents and aiding rehabilitation. Both Quiring and Councilor John Blom asked questions about how long inmates are at the jail. Corrections Chief Ric Bishop said the average stay is 19 days.

Blom asked about taking a phased approach and if any priorities at the jail should be addressed first. Bishop said intake and medical are the two highest priorities.

“The analogy is you can build me more bedroom space in the house or other parts of the house but if my front door is too small, I can’t do anything about it,” said Bishop.

Columbian political reporter