Not long ago I saw a newspaper article reporting that Greene County planned to open more jail beds at a significant expense. It struck me as odd, given the emerging bipartisan consensus that we, as country, already send too many nonviolent offenders to jail. I hope that before the Greene County Commissioners decide to take the step of adding 120 jail beds at the cost of $1.3 million per year, the need for the expense and the possible alternatives will be well researched and thoroughly discussed in public. That hasn’t happened yet.
The proposal under consideration is a single minded one. It doesn’t solve long recognized problems with the jails. Green County operates two different jails, the old downtown Xenia jail and a more modern facility on the edge of town called the Adult Detention Center where the 120 beds would be added by opening two mothballed pods. I had a tour of both facilities recently as a member of the Greene County grand jury.
The downtown jail has been operating under a Federal court order related to conditions, ventilation, and crowding since 1989. Nonetheless, serious problems persist for inmates and jailers alike. Stained ceilings from water leaks are evident throughout and work areas do not have proper ventilation.
If the plan involved closing the downtown facility and replacing those lost beds by reopening the pods at the adult correction center that could make sense. Maintenance costs downtown must be astronomical. That’s not the plan, however. The intention is to keep the downtown facility open.
What about expanding drug treatment? Greene County operates the Green Leaf substance abuse program in its jails. That program is reported to have a high success rate. Since there is a resurgence of heroin use in our area, expanding Green Leaf might be a smart thing to do. Unfortunately, drug treatment would not be expanded under the plan.
So, the plan isn’t about improving the quality of the jail or responding to the need for drug treatment. It’s solely about new jail beds. Those 120 jail beds will allow for the jailing of an additional 2,038 people per year. Keep in mind that Green County already has more jail beds per capita (when properly adjusted by the crime rate of each county) than either Clark or Montgomery Counties. Given the significant expense of adding still more beds, have the County Commissioners fully explored accepted alternatives to jail for nonviolent offenders?
One such alternative is to improve the effectiveness of and expand the use of probation. According to the materials provided to the Commissioners by the Fairborn municipal judge, the existing probation officers have caseloads that are double the national standard.
The standard says that each officer should have 120 probationers, here they each have closer to 250. It is hard to imagine that they are able to do much with their probationers. Have the Commissioners explored the possibility of expanding the probation staff and ensuring that national best standards are used to reduce recidivism and increase public safety? There is no evidence that they have despite the fact that this route would be much cheaper than opening jail beds.
Another approach is to improve bail practices. About 50% of the people in the Greene County Jail are pretrial detainees. These are people who are only there because they cannot afford bail. Many court systems are moving away from cash bail, which disproportionately burdens low-income people, and are adopting other forms of surety.
What effort has been made to explore those approaches? What practices are used by the judges? Again, there is no evidence that the Commissioners have examined local practices to make sure that we are not unnecessarily jailing people while they are awaiting trial.
Until the Greene County commissioners have truly examined alternatives to spending more money on jails, they should not rush down the same tired and expensive road of more jail cells and more people in jail. There is time to get this right.
The commissioners need to take a breath, open this up to public discussion, do the homework, adopt all accepted practices and procedures that preserve public safety while reducing the need for jail, and then, if more jail beds are still needed they will have made the case for spending more of the taxpayer’s money. As of now, they have not.
Ellis Jacobs is an attorney who works in Dayton and lives in Greene County.