XENIA — Voters will decide March 17 whether or not to allow a 12-year .25 percent sales tax increase to fund the construction of a new $70 million, 500-bed Greene County Jail.
Citizens have been hearing from proponents on both sides of Issue 12, including a representative from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Greene County Citizens Against Giant Jail Tax group during the Greene County Tea Party’s Meet the Candidates Night Feb. 18.
Currently, the sheriff’s department consists of three facilities in Xenia: a 51-year-old, 146-bed downtown jail; the nearly-100-year-old Ford dealership building housing sheriff’s offices nearby; and a 20-year-old, 236-bed Adult Detention Center on Greeneway Boulevard, originally built as temporary housing due to overcrowding.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction inspected the downtown jail in 2018, reporting that while the total actual general housing capacity for the jail is 146, they recommended the housing capacity to be 95. The report indicates there were 137 inmates in the jail on the date of inspection.
Overcrowding is not a new problem for the jail. A 2003 Fairborn Daily Herald article titled “Jails bulge; judges fume” references a 1989 federal court order against overcrowding after a Greene County inmate sued because of it.
Under the direction of the Greene County commissioners, officials from HDR — the architectural, engineering, and consulting firm tasked with studying the current correctional facilities in the county — issued a final report last year consisting of four options for a new facility. In August 2019, Sheriff Gene Fischer chose the plan that would abandon the sheriff’s offices and downtown jail, build a new 500-bed replacement jail, and convert the adult detention center into a rehabilitation facility to be used by a third party.
The proposed sales tax is a consumption tax, not a property tax. According to Maj. Shawn Prall, up to 40 percent of the new facility would be paid for by people coming from outside of the county to spend money in Greene County. Prall also said 46 percent of the people who were booked into the jail in 2019 gave home addresses outside of Greene County.
“On $100 that you spend, this tax would add 25 cents to your purchase — almost unnoticeable,” Prall said.
Advocates for the issue use the conditions of the downtown jail as a main argument.
“It is a dangerous, linear-style jail, which is the old style you see on TV,” Prall said. “It has crumbling walls, iron bars. It’s dark. Theres no way to rehabilitate or give services to inmates while they’re there.”
During a tour of the jail, Capt. Amy Cook, who’s been working at the facility for 23 years, gave Gazette reporters a look at leaky ceilings and asbestos-containing floor tiles, outdated cells without security cameras, narrow catwalks, a suicide-watch room with no running water, and an unusable fire door and sunken sally port.
The current plan gives a 50-year outlook, with an increase of 2.3 beds per year.
“That is not a huge increase but we have to plan for the future,” Prall said. “The sheriff does not want to house 500 inmates. He wants to have room to put inmates where they need to be … With the new facility proposal we’d be able to separate these people into their own housing units, where veterans can help each other while they do their time, GED people that are in there for OVI or low-level misdemeanors can be in the same block and do their homework.”
Prall said the number of beds isn’t the only issue — it’s not having the space to offer rehabilitation services and transformational programs. The new jail could be built next to the ADC, which potentially could be turned into a privately-run treatment facility, he explained.
“We have to have the right programs to help the people who want to be helped,” Jail Administrator Maj. Kirk Keller said.
Prall said a pre-release program would allow inmates to do more than just “sit in a cell watching TV.”
“We want them to make progress on their life while we have them — getting their license, housing, treatment, things they need so when they do leave our facility they have hope, they’re not just turned back on the street broke with no ideas, no hope, no helping hand,” he said.
Jim Leonard, who recently toured the jail, agrees a new facility is needed. But he stresses the “giant” in Greene County Citizens Against Giant Jail Tax.
“We are in favor of replacement of a downtown jail. It needs to be done,” he said on behalf of the group. “We feel that a ‘no’ vote is called for Issue 12 because, very simply, the proposed $70 million, 500-bed jail is much larger than is actually needed.”
Leonard argued that HDR’s report ignores two major Ohio developments that could come to fruition in the future — amended court rules for bail reform and legislation that would modify drug sentencing to divert people from jail into treatment programs.
“These rules will increase the number of non-convicted persons who are released from custody before trial,” Leonard wrote in an email. “The size of the increase, which will be determined in part by how courts apply the rules, is unknown at this time, but the increase may result in a significant reduction of Greene County’s jail population.”
Leonard also referred to upcoming legislation, House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3, which are both currently in Senate judiciary committees. The bills aim to reduce jail population through drug sentencing modifications.
“Both of those things are going to reduce the amount of beds that are needed,” Leonard said. “… They’re picturing a climb of beds needed but with bail reform and sentencing changes there’s going to be fewer inmates in Greene County.”
It is evident that both sides of Issue 12 agree that a new jail, with better programming, is desperately needed in Greene County. But it will be up to the voters to accept the current proposal or look for other alternatives.
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