“Because You Asked” blogs are in response to questions asked by you, the community I serve. Each volume addresses a question or group of questions. I’ve tried to keep the questions worded as asked, but occasionally have to reword them either to provide context or to combine similar questions. In any case, I’ve tried to retain the questioner(s)’ intent.
Questions: can the current jail be expanded to meet the projected and current needs for beds – or does the county need to open a second jail facility? If that is the case – how will you prevent a boondoggle like Multnomah County’s Wapato Jail that was never opened after being built? Your opponent has stated that it’s likely that the number of open jail beds is to be cut before the election. Your opponent has pointed out that in prior elections you identified a need to expand jail facilities – but that has not happened – has your opinion changed on that need? If not, what are you going to do if re-elected to make that happen? Your opponent has called into question the unfulfilled past campaign promise to expand the jail in light of the opening of a $20 million training facility. Is it wise to spend $20 million on a training facility if Washington County needs more jail beds to house prisoners, and how far would that $20 million have gone in expanding inmate housing?
I love these questions, in part because there’s good news on both fronts. And while the questions frame jail expansion and the Public Safety Training Center as a choice, it really isn’t. One does not preclude the other; we can have both. In answering the questions I hope to clarify why that is possible. And then I’ll get back to the good news.
Our current jail’s original design envisioned eventual expansion. This plan is forward-thinking because expansion is more cost-effective than building a new facility and will have less impact on staffing, as well as on our justice system partners. Even though expansion of the current facility is more cost-effective, it will still require substantial funding. It’s almost a certainty that funding will require a voter-approved general obligations bond.
Regarding whether jail beds will be cut, the truth is that they have already been temporarily cut due to scheduled jail maintenance. We are currently rotating a closed housing unit for an equipment upgrade and maintenance that can’t be performed with inmates present. But this maintenance project has clearly come at a good time, given our Jail’s reduced staffing levels due to a challenging recruitment environment (a challenge we share with other area agencies as well as businesses), training new staff, allowing for staff leave and training, supporting staff with Family/Medical leave, and recovery time for injury or illness on or off duty. Increasing staffing levels is also a priority, and one that is integral to any jail expansion planning process.
Jail expansion was a priority for me when I took office in 2011 and remains so now. But two things are required to make that priority a reality – a significant shortage of jail capacity AND a plan that accounts for other justice system components that comprise the public safety system – the District Attorney’s Office, the courts, defense attorneys, Community Corrections, and the Juvenile Department.
Jail Capacity. When I became Sheriff in 2011 we had only two overcrowding releases that entire year, and only one in 2012. That was in contrast to the extreme overcrowding releases seen in the early 2000s (thousands per year). But rapid population growth suggested to me that overcrowding releases would soon return to high levels, which is why expansion was a priority for me. However, those increases did not materialize. In 2013, overcrowding releases grew to about 670 releases per year before dropping to approximately 240 per year in 2014 and 2015. So, one of the basic components necessary for jail expansion, a significant shortage of jail capacity, was not present. Then, last year overcrowding releases surged significantly to 1,861 which is a rate, in my view, that signals it’s time to plan for expansion.
Justice System Components. A significant part of a Sheriff’s job is to work with the leaders of our justice system components to understand the system impacts of a new law enforcement challenge, or a change such as a jail expansion. As the case for jail expansion recently grew stronger, convincing evidence also developed to increase capacity of other justice system components. That makes sense because rapid, sustained growth eventually impacts multiple areas. Working closely with county and justice system leaders, we agree it’s time for a justice system master planning process, which is slated to begin in 2020. The goal of this process is to analyze, plan, design, and expand capacity where appropriate so that our justice system meets our growing community’s needs well into the future. Such a process takes years to complete and was used to plan our current Jail and Community Corrections Center. It will work again because it leads to informed decisions to align our system in a manner that’s not only integrated, but also provides a balanced and effective justice system, which I believe is important to voters.
The main element required for jail expansion was not present after I became Sheriff; capacity was not significantly short after all. So, we increased our focus on providing a place for excellent training.
Public Safety Training Center. The new training center meets our training needs into the future as far as we can envision. It’s one of the best investments we can make in our staff, officer safety, professionalism, and customer service. Planning for the training center began in 2015, construction started in early 2018, and we held its ribbon-cutting ceremony in July of this year.
(Jail) (Training Center)
Designed by trainers, it’s a top-tier place to train across a wide range of skills at one location, tailored for enforcement and jail professionals. The training center matches the excellent caliber of our trainers and supports safe driving, defensive tactics, de-escalation, classroom instruction, range operations, interagency response, and decision-making in dynamic, changing situations. It provides our professionals the best learning value to achieve safe outcomes for themselves and the community. Excellent training requires an excellent place to train and is a pillar of a professional, reliable law enforcement agency. It helps build community confidence and trust.
And now for the good news on both jail capacity expansion and the training center:
As I alluded to previously, we will begin the planning process for jail expansion in 2020. Both necessary elements exist – a significant shortage of jail capacity and agreement among justice system leaders that the time to plan for system-wide innovations has arrived. We are working together to create that balanced and effective justice system that our community needs today and well into the future.
Also, the training center has been open for several months now, and I could not be more pleased with the training it enables. The work of our professionals can be very dangerous, and the training center increases the probability they will go home safe at the end of their shift. Feedback from recruiting and new staff shows our reputation for excellent training helps attract applicants. As we continue bolstering recruiting efforts, the training center will only improve that appeal, while remaining faithful to our commitment to support our professionals and community.
I look forward to working with leaders from our justice system and community to ensure our justice system components have enough capacity and are balanced far into the future, in a manner truly reflective of our community. We can do that and still remain focused on excellent training to keep our professionals safe and best serve our community.