Jackson County’s Jail-Only 40% Tax Increase


Jackson County is asking voters in May to approve a plan that would…

  • Create a new separate and permanent taxing district, controlled by the county commissioners and county administrator.

  • Raise county property taxes by more than 40% that could be used only for a supersized new jail – with three times the maximum capacity of the current jail. The new jail would also use up $66 million that taxpayers have already paid and that represents most of the county’s available reserves.

  • Cost more than $1 billion over the next 23 years to build and operate, according to the county's figures.

  • Use up money needed in our communities for crime reduction, affordable housing, mental health and addiction treatment, transportation, and other essential services.

A “NO” Vote is a Vote for Better Alternatives

A poll paid for by the county shows that 71% of voters are opposed to the county’s proposed new permanent jail-only tax district.


Those opposed included majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters, and both homeowners and renters.


Independent studies show that holding more people in jail longer…

  • Means jailing many people who don’t belong in jail in the first place and need treatment and crisis assistance.

  • Leads to more repeat crimes, not fewer.

  • Disconnects people from family and other support systems.

  • Creates new trauma and new barriers to getting jobs, rental housing, and needed benefits.

Voting “NO” is the only way to get the county to work with community groups and other agencies to develop a more comprehensive plan, like other counties have, that reduces crime and includes better prevention, diversion, crisis assistance, and treatment. And that addresses underlying problems like affordable housing, mental illness, addiction, and poverty.


Only with a comprehensive plan like that would we know whether Jackson County needs a new jail and, if so, how big.

A. We Can’t Afford The County’s Jail-Only Permanent Tax Plan.


Jackson County Commissioners Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser have put on the May ballot a proposal developed by County Administrator Danny Jordan that would impose a permanent new tax to build a brand new jail that would increase capacity from 315 to 896 beds. At a meeting of the county commissioners on Oct. 16, 2018, Jordan said the plan would “triple the capacity.”


County Commissioner Colleen Roberts voted against the plan. At the commissioners’ meeting on Feb. 26, 2020, Roberts said she has received many emails and phone calls, listened to testimony from at least 50 residents opposed to the jail-only approach (with only 4 in favor), and reviewed the county’s own public opinion poll that showed 71% opposed.


“I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who support it,” Roberts said.


Roberts also said she was concerned about proceeding with a plan that had not achieved the involvement of everyone in the county after it failed to win the votes of a majority of Talent city councilors.


The new jail tax would increase the county’s share of property taxes by more than 40 percent. The current county tax rate is $2 per $1,000. The new jail tax would add more than 87 cents per $1,000.


The county’s plan would also use up the great majority of the county’s reserve funds – at least $66 million taxpayers have already paid that could be used for other purposes.


The county decided that the new tax would be collected and spent by a permanent new service district run by the three county commissioners and the county administrator, unlike other taxing districts with elected boards that are more directly accountable to the public. The county has chosen to set it up in a different way than the library district, sewer district, transit district (RVTD), fire districts, and other districts that are run by elected nonpartisan boards. So residents would be taxed but would have far less direct say than they do with other districts. Any “advisory committees” that might be promised would have no power or authority.


The county decided that the new tax would be collected and spent by a permanent new service district run by the three county commissioners and the county administrator, unlike other taxing districts with elected boards that are more directly accountable to the public. The county has chosen to set it up in a different way than the library district, sewer district, transit district (RVTD), fire districts, and other districts that are run by elected nonpartisan boards. So residents would be taxed but would have far less direct say than they do with other districts. Any “advisory committees” that might be promised would have no power or authority.


The county chose to tax residents in a way that prohibits use of the money for anything but the new triple-sized jail. The county could have proposed a levy that could also be used for prevention, crisis assistance, diversion, and treatment in order to reduce the number of people who are jailed and to reduce repeat offenses, as other counties have done. But it chose to try to establish a separate and permanent jail-only service district that could not legally use funds for those purposes.


The new triple-sized jail would cost more than $1 billion to build, maintain, and operate over the next 23 years, according to the county's figures .


Here is the county’s own language explaining a 20-year spreadsheet that was presented to city councils:


“Total cost of constructing the new jail is $60 million general fund reserves, $6.6 million for land, and $104.3 million bonded construction cost (which will be paid by the district) for a total $170.9 million. Total district support (new taxes) for operations and bond payments would be the sum of row 45 from column C to V for the first 20 years or $514,042,038. Total projected continued general fund support for the jail operations would be the sum of row 36 columns C to V for the first 20 years or $241,798,994. Total operations expenditures for the 20 years is the sum of row 32 columns C to V or $713,861,937.


Total budget would be the combination of row 32 “Total Expenditures” plus row 41 or bond payments which equals $852,136,517.”


By year 23, with costs running more than $50 million per year at that point, total costs would exceed $1 billion, according to the county's figures.


Neither the county nor most cities have discussed the impact a new tax of this size could have on other county and city services, as well as future needs for transportation, fire protection, or water and sewer maintenance and improvements.


The county’s own poll showed that voters overwhelmingly oppose this plan.

The poll was commissioned by the county in 2018. It was conducted by DHM Research, a major polling firm for corporate clients in Oregon, with the results published on the sheriff’s website.


Jackson County voters were asked, “If the vote to create a new taxing district to fund the ongoing operations and maintenance of a new jail were on the ballot today, would you vote ‘yes’ to support the measure or ‘no’ to oppose it?”


71% said they would vote “no.” Large majorities of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all said “no.” When the results were broken down by categories like men, women, young people, older people, residents of Medford, or residents of Ashland, majorities in each category were opposed to the proposal.


The pollsters then presented voters with arguments in favor of the new taxing district (without following the usual procedure of also presenting arguments against). Even with this one-sided approach, 60% still said “no.”


In the Oct. 13, 2018 Mail Tribune, Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she would “respect” the results of the poll, although she has since voted in favor of the plan.


Commissioner Rick Dyer also has voted in favor of the plan, although when he was running for re-election he told the Mail Tribune on March 21, 2018 that he was “committed to fiscally responsible decision-making and wants to keep the county on strong financial footing.”


On Oct. 16, 2018, Jordan, the county administrator, said at a commission meeting that if taxpayers vote “no” in May, “we can still work to afford to build a new jail without asking taxpayers. I don’t think we give up if taxpayers say yes or no.”

B. The County’s Jail-Only Tax Plan Won’t Work.

The county says a huge new jail is needed to 1) reduce overcrowding in the existing jail, 2) reduce the rate of repeat crimes, and 3) connect inmates with social services.


1. The first step to reduce overcrowding would logically be to reduce the number of people jailed in the first place. Yet, the county has presented no analysis of cost-effective ways to do that.


When Bob Strosser was running for County Commissioner, he said in an Oct. 26, 2016 interview on the Jefferson Exchange that “what happens when mental health isn’t properly staffed, police officers are dealing with that and that’s really not their expertise. The jail is not the place for mental health. We have the walking wounded on the street. Jail is not necessarily the right answer for them. Two-thirds of them – alcohol, drugs, or mental illness.” Yet, Strosser has supported the jail-only tax plan.


According to statistics on the sheriff’s website, Jackson County has 61 jail bookings per year per 1,000 residents compared to 33 in Lane County, 40 in Deschutes County, and 45 in Marion County. An effective Jackson County plan would include programs like other counties have to bring that number down -- before asking taxpayers to triple jail capacity.


Community groups like the Rogue Action Center and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Oregon (NAMI-SO) have had to make up for the county’s failure to research alternatives. These groups have already organized several public presentations about programs in other counties that save money and provide better prevention, diversion, crisis assistance, and treatment.


For example, CAHOOTS is a mobile crisis intervention service integrated into the public safety systems of Eugene, Springfield, and Lane County. A 24/7 free response is available for non-emergency medical care or first aid, and for a broad range of non-criminal crises, including homelessness, intoxication, disorientation, substance abuse, and mental illness problems, as well as dispute resolution and conflict mediation. Transportation to services is also provided. This program handles 24,000 calls per year. It saves the community $15.5 million a year by handling calls that would otherwise go to the police, reducing arrests and diverting patients from emergency rooms.


Marion County has implemented a similar mobile crisis team that pairs mental health professionals and law enforcement. The Crisis Outreach Response Team, a collaboration of the Marion County Sheriff's Office and Health Department, connects individuals with counseling services, alcohol and drug treatment, and peer mentor support as an alternative to jail time. Less than 3% of calls the crisis teams respond to result in arrests. Marion County has reduced annual jail bookings by 20 to 25 percent.


Marion County has a 24/7 Psychiatric Crisis Center where people can be taken when they shouldn’t be taken to jail or a hospital. Jackson County officials told the Ashland City Council that such a center was nearly created in Jackson County in 2008 but stalled because of the recession. That was 12 years ago. They did not present any plan to work with partners to create one now – an example of the kind of improvement that ought to happen before voters are asked to consider a new jail tax.


Marion County staff use a risk assessment tool to divert low-level, low-risk pre-trial offenders out of jail by waiving bail. The county provides supervision and reminder services to ensure offenders make it to trial. Records show that most of these defendants don't reoffend during release and do show up for their court dates.


A few of the many options used elsewhere that Jackson County could study before putting a billion dollars into a new triple-sized jail might include:


  • 24 hour crisis center

  • Crisis housing with wrap-around services

  • More transitional housing

  • Tools to identify mental illness earlier

  • 24/7 mobile crisis response

  • Increase resources for mental health and drug courts

  • Expanding pre-trial release and supervision programs

  • Eliminate cash bail for low-level offenders and increase support services to ensure offenders turn out to court

The county has said that some advances like these would require coordination with Jackson Care Connect and AllCare, which provide some mental health services to their members. Shouldn't the county have done that coordination in order to put together a comprehensive plan, instead of asking voters to approve a jail-only proposal? Without a plan for improving pre-jail and post-jail alternatives, how do residents know whether a new jail is needed and, if so, what size?


2. The county’s plan will make the repeat crime rate worse, not better.


A study by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation found that the longer a defendant is kept in jail, the higher their risk of repeat offenses. Marion County found that the two-year rate for repeat offenses by low-risk defendants hovers at around 17 percent when they are kept in jail for two to three days, but spikes to 51 percent once jail stays increase to two weeks.


Right on Crime, an organization led by major national conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Grover Norquist, Rick Perry, David Keene (former president of the National Rifle Association), and Asa Hutchinson (former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration), says:

  • “Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.

  • “Taxpayers are footing the bill for jail stays that often times have an adverse effect on public safety.

  • “Research shows that, especially in regards to low-risk defendants, even brief jail stays can increase the chance of committing another crime in the future.

  • “A contributing factor for this is that a few days in a cell can lead to being laid off, losing housing, making it difficult to find and keep meaningful employment.

  • “When someone who has mental health issues is locked up pretrial it can compound their situation. The same can be said for people who display signs of substance abuse.”

Right on Crime’s report on “Overflowing Jails: Addressing High Rates of Rural Pretrial Incarceration,” finds that...

“Potential causes for increasing rural pre-trail jail populations include a lack of presumption of pre-trial release, economic incentives to build unnecessary jail capacity, and rising drug abuse.”


Right on Crime advocates a series of reforms, including:


Determining pretrial incarceration based on risk. Judges can gain a bigger picture of each individual and make decisions on a case-by-case basis if they utilize risk assessment tools that take criminal records into account.

Indigence should be considered when assigning fines or fees.

Give police officers the option to divert low-risk defendants with mental health or substance abuse issues to treatment programs rather than jail.

Offer alternatives to incarceration for unpaid fines or fees such as payment plans, community service, and digital court reminders.


A new national study of jail expansion in rural and small-town communities found that “the push to increase jail beds to improve health and social services can also backfire: the inherent harms of incarceration may limit the effectiveness of new service capacities, and investment in corrections-based treatment services may divert resources for similar community-based supports.”


The damage that excessive incarceration does is one reason that states with expanding populations like Texas and Georgia under conservative Republican governments have enacted new policies to reduce the number of people in custody.


In 2018, Congress passed a new law to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. Two years ago the Oregon Legislature changed criminal justice policies in order to avoid building a new prison. And the state is working with local governments to promote more effective policies than simply building bigger jails. At least 52 local jurisdictions are working with the MacArthur Foundation to reduce local jail populations and achieve better outcomes..


The state of Michigan recently released a report put together by a 21-member committee made up of law enforcement officials, lawmakers, attorneys, advocates, survivors of crime, and formerly incarcerated people that recommends 18 reforms to reduce the number of people unnecessarily in jail.


3. The county says jail will become the gateway for more people to receive social services. However, not only does jail set many people back instead of helping them, but a jail-only tax does not address the serious lack of existing services in the community.


At an Ashland city council meeting in December, a series of officials from the county, Jackson Care Connect, and Allcare listed many mental health programs, most of them severely understaffed and underfunded.


While they acknowledged that “our mental health system is broken,” they also made it clear that county voters will be asked to approve a huge new jail before any plan is in place to fix that system.


Jackson County lacks at least 12,500 housing units for people in addiction rehab, suffering from mental illness, living with disabilities, at risk of domestic violence, stabilizing their lives as released offenders, or with other special needs, according to the most recent analysis by the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department. The county has presented no analysis of the potential benefit that could be gained by investing more resources into addressing needs like that.


Jackson County has said it will eventually be spending $4 million more per year on health services when the new jail is fully operational. That primarily reflects the fact that with far more inmates the cost of health services will increase too. Only a fraction of that figure represents mental health services, as the county says it is planning to add only a few more mental health professionals to work in the triple-sized jail. And with so much money eaten up by the jail, what services will be available for these few mental health professionals to refer inmates to?

C. The jail-only plan will prevent the real solutions we need.


This huge jail-only expenditure will make it far less likely that the county would ever fund alternatives. If this new permanent jail-only plan is put in place, the county’s reserves will be nearly used up, and it will become far more difficult to ask voters to address underlying problems like mental illness, addiction, homelessness, and poverty


Nearly tripling jail capacity also could create enormous political pressure to justify this spending by making sure extra beds are filled each night. Will elected officials want to bring in alternative programs that would result in the new jail-only tax having been unnecessary? While some of the added beds will be filled by holding people in jail longer, will more arrests also be needed to justify the expansion?


A recent independent study of 216 counties that built new jails found that a large percentage were already overcrowded again within six years or less. The researchers studied the reasons why expanding jail capacity did not fulfill its promises.


First, “added capacity does little to alter the true drivers of jail population and, thus, the causes of overcrowding.”


Second, they found that “once jail capacity expands, inertia among law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, etc. may bias the local justice system to simply use a now more readily available resource: jail beds.”


Third, research showed that “new jail construction often uses available capital that could be employed for community health initiatives and youth delinquency prevention programs -- services that jails cannot simply replace.”


Fourth, they documented the fact that “however well-intentioned jail expansion may be, the experience of isolating confinement in a facility will still be traumatic for people, intrinsically limiting the rehabilitative potential.”


Counties all over the U.S. are grappling with these questions. What can we learn from these larger conversations?


A good resource on what to ask county officials is a toolkit from the Prison Policy Initiative:

‘Does our county really need a bigger jail? A guide for avoiding unnecessary jail expansion’

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/jailexpansion.html


Another good resource is this report from the Vera Institute of Justice

'Broken Ground | Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead

https://www.vera.org/publications/broken-ground-jail-construction

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