Statement delivered by Build Programs, Not Jails before the County Board on August 18, 2016.
Last week [on Tuesday, August 9, 2016] the County Board’s Committee of the Whole voted in favor of placing a referendum on the November ballot for a ¼ percent sales tax to pay for “public facilities” purposes. We fully recognize that the county has pressing maintenance needs, particularly in regard to the county’s public nursing home. We also recognize that the use of these funds will be determined on an ongoing basis by the sitting County Board. However, based on the Facilities Action Plan that was presented as background to the referendum, by far the largest portion of immediate spending will be for jail building. This is unacceptable. Apart from directing too much money toward jail construction, we reject the proposal the Board is recommending on four other grounds:
1. A decision on constructing or renovating jail space should be made in the context of considering how to decrease the number of people incarcerated, and only after that is addressed should jail construction be included in a proposal on facilities and maintenance. Given the serious incarceration debate that has taken place in our community, any attempt to address issues of jail construction must be considered as part of a political process which examines the criminal justice system as a whole and includes participation by the community. We must pay special attention to including the Black community, which has been most seriously impacted by incarceration.
2. The Facilities Action Plan neglects virtually any measures that would keep people out of jail or reduce jail numbers. While the jail is labeled as an immediate priority and is put in Group A, the only proposal to reduce the incarcerated population is for a Behavioral Health Services Facilities, which is in Group C: “Projects in this group are conceptual only. They require further study relative to the construction and operational costs to be incurred as well as funding strategies.” As an important alternative to incarceration and the absence of behavioral health services in our county, this project should be a top priority in the critical group, not at the bottom of the list.
3. The presentation of the Facilities Action Plan claimed that between closing the Downtown Jail and new construction at the Satellite Jail there would be a considerable decrease in the overall jail capacity, whereas in fact it is only a 10% decrease from 313 to 282 (additionally, not all cells in the downtown jail are currently available for use). The presentation also said the plans for the jail reflected a 40% decrease in cost compared to the 2015 Sheriff’s Office Master Plan, not recognizing how outrageously expensive that plan was.
4. The referendum proposal was presented in the context of the Facilities Action Plan, which outlined priorities and allocations of funding. However, when members of the public attempted to criticize that plan, we were told the plan meant nothing, that the next board would develop the actual plan. This appears to be a conscious deception calculated to obscure the essence of the board’s intention and to cover up the excessive funding to be directed to the jail.
Likely the debate over jail construction has been the most hotly contested political issue in this county in decades. Incarceration is unnecessary for the majority of people who are arrested, and can further disrupt people’s lives, especially for low-income individuals. However, the county board’s referendum is a quick-fix solution aimed at ignoring the problems and solutions that the community has brought to this board for the last four and a half years. We reject this plan and hope that the county will come forward with a solution to these problems that breaks with the history of excessive reliance on incarceration to solve social problems, and which contributes to eliminating the racial disparity that has become a persistent feature of our county jail. It is time for a new direction.