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Scott County to Consider Proposal for $29.7-Million Jail PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 11 May 2004 18:00
Scott County is a step closer to putting a new jail proposal before voters, and although it’s less expensive and smaller than the one in a referendum rejected in 1998, it’s not the most cost-effective option available.

Last week, the Community Jail & Alternatives Advisory Committee (CJAAC) recommended that the Scott County Board of Supervisors put on the November ballot a proposal to renovate and add to the two current correctional facilities, with a construction cost of $29.7 million. The county is still figuring out exactly how much that would impact the property-tax rate, but Scott County Administrator C. Ray Wierson told the River Cities’ Reader than it would cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $1.99 a month in increased property taxes.

The board of supervisors will consider the recommendation at its May 18 committee-of-the-whole meeting. Wierson expects the board to put a bond issue on the general-election ballot. After the 1998 referendum, he noted, the board created CJAAC to bring the community into the process of developing a new proposal. “They were putting this in the hands of the community,” he said. “The last time, it was perceived as – and it was – a board solution.”

While CJAAC has taken care to address many of the issues that led voters to reject a $48-million, 500-bed facility in 1998 – that building would cost $56.1 million to build today – it chose an option that is more expensive to operate in the long run than several other alternatives.

The least-expensive option – an entirely new facility near the courthouse – would cost $35.5 million to build, but its operating costs over an anticipated life of 30 years would more than compensate for the increased construction expense. (See chart.) That option would cost $16.3 million less to build and operate over 30 years ($311.2 million) than the solution CJAAC selected ($327.5 million).

But CJAAC rejected that option because it doesn’t re-use existing facilities. “Tremont [the jail annex] is sitting there empty,” said Sheriff Dennis Conard. “We’d be walking away from the old jail.” In the recommended option, the main jail would have a capacity of 296, while the annex would house 84 minimum-security male inmates.

Doing nothing – using the current downtown jail and the annex on Tremont Avenue – would cost $472.4 million over 30 years, CJAAC predicts. That involves the cost of housing inmates beyond those facilities’ 200-inmate capacity out-of-county. On May 10, Scott County had 27 prisoners housed outside its own facilities, and 193 housed inside them.

If the referendum is passed, Wierson said he expects that the expanded and renovated facilities could be finished by late 2006 or early 2007.

“If the Referendum Fails, It’s Not a Solution at All”

After voters rejected the 1998 referendum, the county re-grouped and formed CJAAC. One of the committee’s main objectives was to explore alternatives to incarceration that might ease some of the pressure on the jail as well as reduce recidivism.

That work is reflected in the reduced capacity of options CJAAC explored; instead of a 500-bed facility, the committee’s seven construction alternatives all feature 380 beds – which is still nearly double the current capacity. With jail programming, CJAAC estimates that a 380-bed facility would serve the county’s incarceration needs until 2030.

A 2001 study done for CJAAC said the county jail would likely need between 417 and 524 beds by 2020, based on a Scott County population of 182,000 by 2025 and incarceration growth rates consistent with both Iowa and Illinois. Those projections did not take into consideration programming that might divert people from jail and reduce recidivism. Before the 1998 referendum, the county estimated that a 500-bed facility would have only met inmate needs through 2010.

CJAAC also made it a priority to craft a recommendation that would address other voter complaints about the 1998 proposal, including:

• Cost.

• Using current facilities instead of abandoning them in favor of brand-new construction.

• The size of the facility. The current proposal would include a two-story addition on the west side of the current jail, while the 1998 proposal was a seven-story building.

Those criteria pretty much made the preferred CJAAC option a foregone conclusion, even though it’s more expensive in the long term.

When asked why the cheapest option was not chosen, Wierson suggested that it was crucial that the recommendation not look anything like the one from 1998, even if that means it makes less sense financially. “Option four would always be cheaper,” he said of the new-construction alternative. But “it would have been perceived to be the ’98 solution. [And] if the referendum fails, it’s not a solution at all.”

One issue that isn’t directly addressed in the CJAAC studies is whether the county would “import” prisoners to fill the excess capacity in the early years of the jail’s life. The “Facility Solutions Document” notes that the county would have the option to do that, but it doesn’t go any further.

Conard said it’s not likely. “There seems to be ample bed space every place except Scott County,” he said. He also said that the financial models in the studies do not include any revenue from prisoners outside Scott County. “We have done no planning in regards to that,” Conard said.

But Wierson said bringing in out-of-county prisoners is a possibility. Polk County, for example, is housing prisoners out-of-state, he said. He also confirmed that out-of-county-prisoner revenue is “not built in” to the financial analysis of the options. He added that bringing prisoners in can reduce the cost of the jail to local taxpayers. “We’re shipping folks to Linn [County],” he said. “We’re helping pay for their jail.”

Pushing Programs

A key element of the CJAAC effort has been ensuring that the county uses programming to reduce its population. To that end, the county has implemented changes such as alternatives to incarceration for low-risk offenders, diversion of some inmates with mental illnesses, and expanded options for drug and alcohol treatment for prisoners.

It’s estimated that current programming at the jail and annex have the potential to reduce recidivism by 8 percent. But programs could do an even better job with more programming space built into the facilities. “Our current … jail really doesn’t allow it to happen,” Wierson said. Jail-population projections for the seven construction options are based on increased space for programming, and reducing recidivism by at least 16 percent.

The jail has recently added two new officers to provide and coordinate programming in the jail. One was hired in March, and a “classification officer” started last year and determines who should be eligible for diversion programs.

Six-week drug-treatment programming started in January, Conard said, and three classes – with a total of 48 people – have gone through it. “Initially, we’re very happy,” the sheriff said of the program. But “our impact might be two or three years down the road.”

Presently, the county has a 60-percent recidivism rate for drug crimes, Conard said. He hopes to get that number down to at most 50 percent.

That’s the kind of progress the county needs to make to convince voters that it’s done all it can to reduce the number of prisoners coming into the county jail. With a proposal on the table, now is the time for the county to make its case.

“We are going to take a very aggressive approach in the community to tell them what CJAAC has been doing,” Wierson said.

He added that the county would be contacting community groups and inviting them to visit the current buildings to see how “outmoded” they are. “They get a better understanding by actually going through the facilities,” Conard said.

Wierson also said he expected that there would be a voter-education effort by a group outside county government trying to get voters to support the jail referendum. A group of that nature was instrumental in garnering voter support for the county’s $5-million contribution to River Renaissance, thus securing $20 in state money. (Government funds cannot be used to lobby for a referendum.)

But there is a key difference between the jail and River Renaissance. With that latter, Wierson said, “it was almost a vote on $20 million. Do you want it or not?” This referendum is a much harder sell, asking voters to fork over their money for a jail instead of community attractions.

Still, Wierson feels good about the new proposal when compared to the failed 1998 referendum. It emphasizes programs instead of warehousing, has fewer beds, and has lower construction costs.

Of course, it’s still asking voters to part with some serious money, and that always makes for an uphill battle.

More information about the jail studies and proposals can be found at (http://www.scottcountyiowa.com/cjaac/).
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