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High cost of jail housing

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Back when I was covering police and courts for Nampa-Caldwell newspapers, we liked to call it – in honor of a former county sheriff – the Dale Haile Jail. Technically, it was the Dale Haile Detention Center, which it still is.

What it also was then, and still is, is too small.

At least, for the demands being placed on it.

On Thursday, according to the online jail roster, it held 431 inmates, just short of the 477 beds it has. (Weekends tend to be busier.) The situation actually is more complicated because, as one staffer told a reporter, “I can’t put a female in with a male. I can’t put a sex offender in with a murderer. You’ve got to be able to separate all these people out.” And there are people who might have been put in jail if there was as place to put them.

And there’s a lot of traffic in and out. The site noted that, “In 2011, Courts and Transport Deputies drove 65,000 miles in transport vehicles, screened over 400,000 individuals entering the two Canyon County courthouses and escorted nearly 11,000 inmates to court appearances from the detention center.”

Overall, one review after another for many years has maintained that more jail space and overall capability is needed. The Canyon County commissioners recently ordered another review from the DLR Group, a large national building design firm, and it found that Canyon needs a jail able to handle at least 1,000 inmates – double the capacity it currently has.

And that’s just to get the county through the next decade.

The pressure is considerable, because building this thing would cost a lot of money (the county hasn’t released an exact number, but it will be big). The county’s voters have, three times in a row, turned down bond proposals for jail construction.

This is worth pondering even if you don’t live in Canyon County because the jail problems it faces are not so radically different from those faced by many other counties.

Ada County, for example, has space for about 1,200 inmates. Since its population is a little more than double Canyon’s (which has capacity for 477), that sounds about right … except that Canyon is really needing capacity for more than 1,000. Which means Ada County probably should be looking at capacity for 2,500 or so.

Yes, this is expensive.

And there are only so many alternatives.

One might be cheap housing, down to and including tents – a popular idea in some quarters. But aside from temporary and limited use, it won’t work in solving the larger-scale issues of security and safety.

You could simply decide to quit jailing people when the beds are full. That may mean jailing low-risk minor offenders and letting the violent and dangerous go free.

Or, you could suck it up and raise taxes to pay for new jail buildings and staff. It would solve the problem of what to do with the inmates, though it wouldn’t make taxpayers happy (as in Canyon at least it hasn’t).

Or, we might try reconsidering what we choose to jail people for, and maybe try to find other ways of dealing with some of the offenders.

Just a thought.

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