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Sept. 25, 2022

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In Our View: County jail plan merits consideration, caution

The Columbian
Published:

The Clark County Jail is facing persistent problems with staffing shortages and outdated facilities, creating often dangerous situations for officers and inmates. In the process, public safety and taxpayers are compromised.

Yet despite the need for improvement, it is not clear whether the county can address those issues more effectively than the sheriff’s office. Therefore, a proposal from County Manager Kathleen Otto warrants consideration but also prudence.

Otto has proposed the creation of a new jail services department at the county level, transitioning management of the jail away from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The Clark County Council on Tuesday night approved the proposal.

“Council’s consideration of creating a new department is truly the first step of this conversation,” Otto told The Columbian prior to Tuesday’s council meeting. “If the new department is approved, that will initiate an intentional conversation on the transition and as that is developed, additional information will be provided.”

In truth, much additional information should be provided before creating a new county department. The proposal raises too many questions to allow for a hasty decision.

Separating jail operations from the duties of the sheriff has merit and precedent. The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, for example, handles 911 calls and dispatch; in many smaller counties, those duties fall under the purview of the sheriff.

And management of the jail comprises a large chunk of the county budget. Having those operations overseen by the county council is sensible, considering that the council is in charge of county finances.

In addition, the sheriff has plenty of other duties. Managing law enforcement is much different from managing the jail, which has different staff, different training and a different mission.

But now would be an odd time to alter the duties of the sheriff with a move that Otto says has been suggested several times over several years. Clark County voters are about to elect a new sheriff, and the two candidates have put much thought into improving jail services. At Tuesday’s meeting, both spoke against it.

It would be sensible to give a new sheriff time to evaluate the situation, implement changes that can be made immediately, and develop a long-term vision for jail operations. No single person can fix the issues with the jail but voters are choosing somebody, in part, with those issues in mind.

That touches upon another drawback to the proposal: Accountability. As an elected official, the sheriff is beholden to the public. The county manager, who is hired by — and answers to — county council members, does not directly answer to the people of Clark County. Yet the county manager supervises all county administrative departments.

Otto said: “The county has oversight over countywide services. This transition will allow countywide resource allocation and partnerships; therefore, the sheriff can focus specifically on law enforcement. This model has proven to be successful in other jurisdictions.”

More evidence to that end is necessary. If it has worked elsewhere, allow the public to examine the benefits and drawbacks in other jurisdictions.

Creating a new department and transferring duties between departments should not be taken lightly or done hastily. The public should be informed of the impact at each stage of the process and the costs of implementation. Otherwise, we might be creating more problems than we solve.

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