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A jail is necessary for a safe community

Columbia County voters overwhelmingly voiced displeasure with county officials last November when they shot down a proposed four-year operating levy for the Columbia County Jail.

The vote was not only a slap across the face to a lackluster and half-hearted jail levy campaign, it also amounted to a referendum on the performance of the county’s elected officials.

At the time, we didn’t endorse the levy, though neither did we call for its rejection. There were too many questions, and seemingly unwillingness from the sheriff and Columbia County commissioners, to discuss the full scope of jail operations and alternatives to having a jail that poisoned any legitimate advocacy on our part for taxpayers to pony up the difference in jail operations.

As was published at the time, we wanted county officials to make a stronger case for the jail, to demonstrate clear long- and short-term plans for financing jail operations and to have a frank conversation about how we got here and where we’re headed. We urged another attempt in May, which brings us to the present.

While some of those questions still persist, we simply cannot, with a clear conscience, advocate for any outcome other than an infusion of taxpayer dollars to save the jail and ensure the county has a place to incarcerate its criminals. That is where we are at and what we are left with, and is why we are advocating a yes vote on Measure 5-238.

One compelling example for why a local jail is crucial is the heart-wrenching nature of domestic violence. With the jail, law enforcement officers have a place to house domestic violence offenders. It’s a place where the domestic violence aggressor can be restrained. Often, as law enforcement officers say, it’s where they will be held until sobering up.

The jail also offers the victims of domestic violence a window for escape. With the offender in jail, the victims have an opportunity to find shelter before he returns.

Without a jail, however, such offenders will be booked and released. When drugs and alcohol are involved, as they frequently are, it’s not unlikely the offender will still be under the influence of intoxicants at the time of release. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which those offenders return home even more enraged than they were prior to arrest, and pick up right where they had left off.

The county’s drug court would also be compromised. At present, the threat of a jail sentence hangs over drug offenders, who receive a deferred sentence provided they meet certain conditions through adult drug court. Success results in the offenders being able to rejoin society with a clean-and-sober approach to life, and even serve as a mentor to help rehabilitate other drug offenders. Failure to meet drug court conditions results in normal sentencing, including jail.

With no jail, the county would be missing a key incentive to direct offenders into rehabilitation, without question the best outcome for any offender.

Perhaps the best reason to have a local jail is for all of the reasons we haven’t considered, which could range from Columbia County becoming a beacon to criminals and to instances in which offenders, halted by an arrest, take their criminal activity to the next level after going through the jail’s cite-and-release routine.

Sheriff Jeff Dickerson is not incorrect when he asserts reopening the jail after a closure will be considerably more expensive than what is currently proposed by the levy, in large part because the U.S. Marshalls Service revenue from renting beds to federal prisoners would fly to other counties. In fact, Multnomah County is rubbing its hands in anticipation of just that scenario.

In a world in which perception becomes reality, Columbia County will be a worse place for honest, hard-working people to live and do business without a local jail. For criminals, it will have all of the appearance of being ripe for the picking. And for familes, the absence of a key component for adequate law enforcement will mark Columbia County as a place to flee.

We’re still not pleased with the fact the county constructed a jail much larger than it needed to meet the needs of the community, especially when the apparent business model at the time relied on guesswork and supposition. But it seems, on this one, our hands are tied. Vote yes to keep the jail open.