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The Greene County Jail on East Market Street in downtown Xenia was built in 1969. County leaders say the aging facility needs to be replaced with an updated and expanded facility. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

The Greene County Jail on East Market Street in downtown Xenia was built in 1969. County leaders say the aging facility needs to be replaced with an updated and expanded facility. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Villagers give views on jail

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Village Council, at its Feb. 18 regular meeting, considered perspectives on Issue 12, a 0.25% sales tax increase to fund the construction of a new and larger jail for Greene County. The proposed new jail is projected to cost the county $70 million in construction expenses and bond interest.

According to Council President Brian Housh, Council plans to write a letter to county officials weighing in on the March 17 ballot issue, and sought public input to craft that document.

Nine local residents offered comments on the jail project, most of whom identified themselves as being affiliated with of Greene County Citizens Against Giant Jail Tax, a local citizen group that opposes Issue 12. Those who spoke from that group highlighted issues such as the need for bail/bond reform, concerns that more jail space would increase incarceration locally and a lack of firm commitments from the county regarding mental health and addiction treatment in the proposed new facility.

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Bomani Moyenda, convener of the citizen group, stated that one of the group’s “biggest concerns” was the planned increase in jail beds. The new jail would include 500 beds, 30% more than are currently available, county officials have said.

“Incentives for managing … populations are lost, and jails become filled,” he said of the increase, reading aloud a caution to the same effect from the county’s jail needs assessment, prepared by outside consultants.

The consultants, Omaha-based firm HDR, recommended in their May 2019 final report that Greene County build a new jail, as well as highlighting methods for reducing the county jail population and improving medical and mental health service delivery within the jail.

Pat Dewees, also a member of the group opposing Issue 12, stated her view that Council should urge county officials to form a countywide planning group to address criminal justice reform locally. She also addressed a memo to Council, included in the Council packet, with this suggestion.

In Dewees’ view, the county’s jail proposal doesn’t take into account criminal justice reforms that are happening around the nation, notably bail/bond reform.

“The same old thing only bigger is not acceptable to me,” she told Council.

Another local resident affiliated with the group, Kelly Ann Tracy, highlighted the high incidence of mental health and substance abuse issues among those in jail. In her view, the county had not put forward a clear plan for improving treatment and rehabilitation.

“Saying that it’s going to be a priority and being a priority are two different things,” Tracy said, urging Council support for a “no” vote on the issue.

But not all residents who spoke opposed the jail project.

Cyndi Pauwels, who said she was speaking for herself and on behalf of Greene County Voices, a progressive political group, urged passage of the sales tax. Pauwels stated that she had been following discussions regarding the county jail for two years, and believed that county officials had considered many of the issues highlighted by those opposed to the new jail.

“Sheriff Fischer and [Jail Administrator] Major [Kirk] Keller have both committed themselves publicly several times to transformational activities,” she said, referring to the Greene County sheriff’s office, which oversees the county jail.

Rather than oppose the jail, Pauwels urged Council to engage with county officials on the project to ensure desired reforms are implemented.

“Now is our opportunity to put that pressure on the county,” she said.

Also offering comment was local resident Franklin Halley, former longtime medical director of TCN, the Xenia-based mental health and addiction treatment agency that provides services to the county jail. Halley stated his view that the jail and sheriff’s office need to be replaced.

In common with others who spoke, Halley also stated that he supported “robust mental health and addiction services” as part of the new project. However, Halley said he was unaware of significant planning for such service expansion on the part of the county.

“I’m not really aware of substantial discussion or planning for that to happen,” he said, adding that creating a new treatment center would require significant funding and staffing.

Eric Miller, another member of the citizen group, clarified that he and others do not dispute that the county needs a new jail to replace its “inhumane” downtown Xenia facility. But the group does oppose the scope of the new project, with significant “extra capacity” for new inmates, he said.

“The group does not oppose a new jail. We oppose the current plan for the new jail,” Miller stated.

Prior to the public comments, Village Manager Josué Salmerón read aloud a letter received by the Village from Jail Administrator Keller responding to what the letter characterized as “the most frequently asked questions or statements” on the project. The letter was also included in the Council packet.

In the letter, Keller disputed local activists’ concern that at least half of those in the county jail were there because they could not afford to pay bail. The majority of those in the county jail are serving a sentence, and most of the remainder are parole or probation violators who do not have bond, according to Keller.

In a subsequent comment, local resident Judith Hempfling stated that the figures Keller provided were at odds with those cited by consulting firm HDR, which indicated that 67% of Greene County inmates were “pre-sentenced.”

In a second point, Keller asserted that the county has specific plans for converting its existing Adult Detention Center, or ADC, into a treatment center operated by a third party.

And in response to a third area of questioning, Keller disputed that a larger jail would lead to more people being locked up, citing the fact that the local inmate population has been less than the available bed space for the past three years. The same would be true in a larger facility, he implied.

Housh thanked local residents for offering their comments, indicating substantial agreement with what had been said.

“You guys are all preaching to the choir,” he said.

Housh stated that he would draft a letter to county commissioners on the jail issue, which all members of Council indicated a willingness to sign. The substance of that letter remains to be defined. Housh said he would share a copy of the communication with the citizen group opposing Issue 12.

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen urged Council to craft a letter that paves the way for more local participation in plans for the county jail.

“This needs to be more than just a letter,” she said.

No other discussion of the issue occurred at Council table.

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