Following a two-day audit, consultants hired through a U.S. Department of Justice agency have confirmed what many local crime watchers already believe: The Jackson County Jail is too small.
The consultants said the jail's capacity and outdated design are causing a bottleneck within the local criminal justice system.
In front of an audience of local police and fire chiefs, county administrators and a trial court administrator Thursday at the Medford police station, National Institute of Corrections consultants April Pottorff and David Boucher outlined deficiencies within the 1981-built jail and provided a glimpse of the complicated process ahead should the county explore building a new facility.
Jackson County has taken the first step of a nine-phase process: recognizing there's a problem, said Pottorff, an architect based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he believes the community has an understanding of the jail's capacity problem, even if residents don't understand the nuances.
"I think the public is tired of the revolving door," Sickler said. "They see the quick turnaround, they see the recidivism."
The Jackson County Jail's current one-in, one-out overcrowding situation means an inmate's length of stay averages 6.15 days, less than half the national average of 13 days. The average number of days an inmate spends in the local jail peaked in 2009 at 9.04 and has ranged between 6 and 8 days since then.
Though the bed count at the jail is 292, Boucher rated the capacity at 232, because inmates are constantly coming and going.
"As it is right now, you have a domino effect," Boucher said.
According to Corrections Lt. Josh Aldrich, who oversees day-to-day operations at the jail, most inmates who have been sentenced are typically sent to the work center "almost immediately."
On a recent day at the jail, 5 percent of inmates were serving a sentence, while 53 percent were awaiting trial on pending cases, Boucher said. "(It's) a little bit high, but not abnormally high," he said. Another 23 percent were held on parole and probation holds.
Boucher commended the level of cooperation between courts and the Jackson County Sheriff's Office for their turnaround of cases. The adjudication process, from initial charge to sentencing, averages 120 days.
"Right now you're working really darn well," Boucher said.
Alternative incarceration programs have been well explored, according to Boucher, who said Jackson County is "alternative rich," but quick releases impact inmates' abilities to take advantage of them before re-offending and losing eligibility.
"They simply are not in place long enough to participate in these programs," Boucher said.
Pottorff noted a lack of space for drug programs at the jail.
Aldrich said an area for such programs was converted into additional bed space. He said because the mix of inmates with different levels of risk changes so regularly, a staff member spends about half her time rearranging inmates to best use space.
More concerning for Pottorff was a lack of mental health space in the facility.
"One of the biggest issues at your jail is you don't have the capacity to deal with the mental health population that enters your jail," said Pottorff.
Next steps in the process include improving the information the jail gathers at intake to reduce delays down the line for a needs assessment months away from now.
Jail commander Capt. Dan Penland said the current database system, known as Tiburon, doesn't provide good data that's easily extracted. Even if staff are familiar with an inmate, the jail historically hasn't had to track mental health and disability issues in a way that will demonstrate and document the need to the public.
Challenges in getting a new jail facility are many, according to Pottorff. It's typically not a popular use of tax resources compared to libraries and schools and needs "buy-in" from the community. Aldrich concurred.
"Community buy-in is always going to be a challenge for us," Aldrich said.
Pottorff said people typically think of effective law enforcement as an officer on a street corner, but an effective jail is equally important.
"The jail is part of the public safety system in our community," Pottorff said.
— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.