Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Local Unelected Board To Decide A $63 Million Question

Proposed site of a second jail, right next to the County Landfill
The twenty appointed members of our local Community Criminal Justice Board* have been called to a historic 4 pm meeting Monday, December 8, at the County Offices Building on East Gay Street.

In this one session, open to the public but not billed as a public hearing, the CCJB is set to make a $63 million decision about building a second jail in our community.

The CCJB, made up of five elected officials and fifteen other local civil servants are charged with the general oversight of our criminal justice system. According to their minutes, its last meeting was held over a year ago, on October 28, 2013.

This upcoming session will be their first and only opportunity to officially review and act on Moseley Architects' "Comprehensive Community Plan", a several hundred page document required by Virginia statute in order for communities to qualify for state building funds. Through a $120,000 contract with our local governing bodies, Moseley, a Richmond-based firm, has been conducting this mandatory community-based study since late summer and just issued its report last week.

To my knowledge no further official vote is required by either the City Council or the local Board of Supervisors for then taking the next step, requesting matching funds from the state for construction. This process will take some time, of course, and state funding is not a sure thing, but the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors and the City of Harrisonburg simply want to be in line to get funding from the State in its upcoming two-year state budget cycle to help cover up to half of the projected construction cost. Meanwhile we are assured that they are not necessarily fully endorsing the Moseley plan in its current form.

$63 million is a lot of money, and according to Moseley's own report, this second jail would require an additional $10 million a year for staffing and other operating costs, while we would of course need to continue to fund the operation of the present jail on Liberty Street. Some of these local expenses are also covered by State funding, but all through our hard earned tax dollars, whether through Richmond or our local jurisdiction.

Among the improvements in the new facility would be space for a much needed mental health unit, at an operating cost of over ten times the meager amount we are spending now for such services. This addition is in itself is a good thing, but investing in community-based services that offer more prevention (and less detention) may be a far better use of the millions we are about to invest in a second jail.

It is also argued that having more of our own bed space would save us the current $1 million annually we are paying to rent space for some 100 inmates we are housing at the nearby (overbuilt) Middle River Jail just 25-minutes away. But that could be considered a real bargain compared to cost of building and operating our own second facility.

In a later blog, I will post some of the actual recommendations in the Moseley report, which if followed, would drastically reduce our current jail population and could entirely eliminate the need for this $63 million investment. Stay tuned.

Here's a recent statement by Ken Cuchinelli, our former Virginia Attorney General:
“For far too long, the only answer to decreasing crime was to put more people in prison. We built prisons at rates we didn’t need and couldn’t afford, especially for non-violent offenders.  Now, we know there are alternatives that cost less and work better.  I am proud to sign on with the Right on Crime initiative to help fix this problem by making cost effective, data driven public safety decisions that reduce recidivism rates.” 

Click here for an online petition to the local Community Corrections Board
and here's a link to some other posts on the topic.

* Current appointed members of the CCJB: Chair of the County Board of Supervisors Pablo Cuevas, Harrisonburg Mayor Ted Byrd,  The Honorable T.J. Wilson, The Honorable Bruce D. Albertson, The Honorable Richard A. Claybrook, The Honorable H. David O'Donnel, Donald D. Driver, Jr., Chaz W. Evans-Haywood, Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, Dr. Carol Fenn, Dr. Scott R. Kizner, Marsha L. Garst, Police Chief Stephen Monticelli, Kurt Hodgen, Louis Nagy, Monica Martin, Joseph S. Paxton, Lee Shifflett, Ann Marie Freeman and Lacy Whitmore
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