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New research from Vera Institute of Justice documents a "quiet jail boom" in smaller cities and rural areas, with more jails being built and more people being locked up. On March 17, Greene County voters will decide whether to fund a new and larger county jail to replace existing facilities, including Greene County Jail, pictured here. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

In rural areas, a ‘quiet jail boom’

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In debates over jail expansion, the big picture is often the hidden aspect of the conversation.

That’s according to Jack Norton, a researcher at Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based research and policy nonprofit that focuses on topics such as jail expansion and alternatives to incarceration. Norton has visited smaller cities and rural areas across the country to report on a surprising trend: rural incarceration.

“Jails are being built all over the country, and many of them are in rural America,” he said in an interview with the News late last year.

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Jail populations in urban counties have declined by 18% since 2013, while the number of people in jail in rural counties has increased by 27% during that same time period, according to a Vera Institute report released in December 2019.

Under the report’s definition for rural counties, Greene County would be classed as a rural area, with a population of under 250,000 and no cities over 50,000.

“There’s a quiet jail boom happening,” Norton said of places like Greene County.

Several recent reports from Vera Institute document and analyze this trend, sounding an alarm that smaller, more rural communities are building new and bigger jails. And that in doing so, these counties are locking more people up.

“When a county builds a new jail, it’s usually with increased capacity,” Norton said. And more jail space leads to more people in jail, he added.

“Judges know there’s room. When a bigger jail gets built, more local people go to jail,” Norton said.

National data bears this out, according to a November 2019 report from Vera Institute titled “Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead,” available for free at the nonprofit’s website, Vera.org.

“Of the 216 county jails constructed between 1999 and 2005 — a time of declining crime rates — the median jail population rose 27% after construction was completed,” the report notes. It continues, “A quarter of the new jails more than doubled in size by 2006, and the facilities had maintained their increased populations by 2013.”

Relevant to local area

While little-discussed locally, these trends are relevant to our part of Ohio, where several nearby counties are building, or considering building, new and larger jails. In 2019, Warren and Fayette counties broke ground on expanded jails. Clark County is meanwhile eyeing a possible new jail, while Montgomery County, fifth-largest in the state in terms of annual jail admissions, is having similar discussions.

Further afield, Fairfield County completed a new and larger jail in 2017, while Franklin County, where Columbus is located, broke ground on a $400-plus million new jail this year.

And here in Greene County, voters on March 17 will decide whether to fund a new and larger county jail.

On the ballot is a proposed sales tax increase of 0.25% over 12 years, earmarked to fund the construction of a new $70 million jail complex in Xenia.

Meanwhile, the county has about $3 million left on its bond from the 2000 construction of the second of its two jail facilities, according to a rough estimate from County Administrator Brandon Huddleson this week.

While Greene County does not yet have detailed plans for the new jail, the proposed 500-bed facility would increase the number of jail beds by 30%, from 382. More space for inmate programming and medical and mental health services would also be included in the eventual design, county officials have said.

The new jail would replace and combine the county’s two existing jails, the maximum-security downtown jail and a medium-security facility located several miles away. A new sheriff’s office is also slated to be built as part of the complex.

While county officials have said the jail expansion is necessary to relieve overcrowding and plan for the future, some local residents have questioned the need for more jail space, arguing that more jail beds equals more people locked up.

“I question the number of beds,” Beavercreek resident Sandy Woodruff said at a public hearing on the issue this fall. “It seems excessive.”

Her observation was echoed by several other local residents who spoke. Most agreed that a new jail was needed to replace the downtown Xenia jail due to overcrowding, aging infrastructure and an outdated design. But most also argued against expanding the jail, preferring that the county pursue bail/bond reform and community-based mental health and addiction treatment.

“Making these reforms will reduce the number of people in jail,” Yellow Springs resident Al Schlueter asserted.

A new group has formed to bring together county residents who oppose the jail expansion. Convened by villager Bomani Moyenda, the group met for the first time last Saturday at the Yellow Springs Community Library. A second meeting is planned for this Saturday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. at the library. All those interested in organizing against the sales tax increase for the new jail are welcome to attend.

Jail expansion arguments

According to Vera Institute’s November 2019 report on jail expansion, county officials make three main arguments in favor of constructing larger jails. Two of them are precisely mirrored in Greene County, while the third is less prominent here.

The first argument involves alleviating jail overcrowding and accommodating future jail population growth.

“As jail populations have exceeded capacity, county policymakers have turned to jail expansion rather than alternatives to incarceration, often hiring architects and consultants to provide population projections that validate this decision to build,” the report states.

This has been the case in Greene County, where county officials hired Omaha-based architectural consulting firm HDR in mid-2018 to provide a jail needs assessment. (The same firm has developed jail assessments for other counties in our area.) Based on the past 10 years of jail admissions data, county growth projections and other factors, HDR estimated that Greene County’s average daily jail population, which is currently around 280, would rise to 366 in 2035. In order to properly house and classify people in jail, that population level would require 420 available beds, the consultants said, up from a current count of 382.

In HDR’s final report, the planning timeline was increased to 2050, with an accompanying increase in the total number of jail beds to 500.

The Vera Institute report notes that “there is no standardized, accepted methodology by which to conduct these projections.” The report continues, “In the 10 projections reviewed, policy changes that had reduced jail populations were not taken into serious consideration, and authors rejected models that predicted a decline in population.”

In the case of Greene County, consultants noted the existence of potential “modifiers” such as changes in financial bail or the practice of releasing people on their own recognizance, but didn’t provide different projections based on these.

And in fact, the Ohio Supreme Court last week proposed bail reforms that would expedite bail hearings and require judges to free more suspects without cash bail. If Ohio legislators don’t take action to block the recommended changes, they would go into effect on July 1, potentially reducing the number of people in county jails.

The second argument regarding jail expansion identified in the Vera Institute report involves the high need for mental health care and behavioral health treatment among inmates. National studies have found that as many as 80% of jail inmates suffer from mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol addiction, and local experts believes those rates are similar in Greene County.

New jails with new services are positioned as ways to respond to that public health crisis, the report suggests.

“Some county policymakers make the argument that a new, larger jail is needed in order to create or expand services for these populations,” the report states.

This is certainly the case in Greene County, where county officials have argued that an expanded jail will provide more space for programming and mental health and medical services. However, as the Vera Institute report notes — and local experts have echoed — treatment services for the mentally ill and others are best delivered outside of jail, not in jail settings.

“That a facility designed for punishment and isolation appears to many as the local site for a county’s investment in specialized treatment services is the result of decades of policy choices that have … put jails at the center of public health and mental health policy,” the report states.

And finally, the third argument for jail expansion involves financial incentives related to renting out excess bed space to other counties, state prisons or the federal government.

“Policymakers pushing to expand jail capacity may believe that building a larger jail is more financially prudent than building a smaller jail, since excess beds can serve as a potential source of revenue to help defray jail construction and operating costs,” the report states.

Some jails, for example, rent space to the U.S. Marshal to hold U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detainees. This is true of Butler County Jail, where a Yellow Springs resident was detained late last summer on immigration charges.

This incentive appears to be present in only a limited way in Greene County. County officials have mentioned the possibility of renting bed space to neighboring counties, but have not highlighted this possibility. Asked by the News this week about such bed rentals, Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said such a program was not the main driver of the local jail expansion.

“That could be a possibility; however, we would need to spend much time on research for housing others’ inmates. Our main concern is not housing for others but housing for ourselves,” he wrote in an email.

Beds add up

If voters approve the sales tax increase in March, Greene County will proceed with hiring an architect and contractor to develop specific plans for the county jail. Sheriff Fischer has said he favors the design of the new $57 million, 496-bed Warren County Jail; the county broke ground for that facility in August.

“I like that design,” Fischer said last week, noting that it includes “pods,” or clusters of cells with central supervision by corrections officers via electronic monitors. The new Warren County Jail also includes more classroom space than the old jail. The News will report more on the Warren County Jail as a potential model for Greene County in a future issue.

And if the sales tax measure doesn’t pass?

“I’m not sure what we’ll do,” Fischer said.

Asked whether the county would seek to raise property taxes for the new jail, he said it was up to the county commissioners. So far, the commissioners have said they favor a sales tax increase to pay for the jail.

But funding mechanism aside, the county seems committed to building a new and larger jail. And that, too, is in line with trends seen around the country, according to Vera Institute’s Norton.

“Jail expansion is easier than solving tough problems in poorer or more rural areas,” he said.

Adding 100 beds here or 200 beds there may not sound like a lot, he acknowledged. But multiplied across many of the country’s 3,283 local jails, and you get that “quiet” boom.

“Most places don’t think they’re the center of mass incarceration,” Norton said. “But these jails add up.”

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 30 print edition of the News. To read past News reporting on the Greene County jail project, click here.

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