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Friday, December 5, 2014

On A Fast Track? How My Community Makes A $63 Million Decision

Monday's meeting here at 4pm in the Fire and Rescue room
In spite of my having lived in this area most of my adult life, I've never paid much attention to how members of the Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors conduct their business.

However, recent steps taken to apply for matching money for a second jail got my attention in a big way, based on my lifelong concern for rehabilitating, rather than merely incarcerating, ever more of our offenders.

Here's a timeline of some of the steps taken so far in the process of applying for "free"(?) state money to build a second $63 million jail

Spring 2014:  Local legislators outsourced the state mandated "Community-Based Corrections Study" to a Richmond firm,  Moseley Architects, at a cost to taxpayers of $120,000. The state requires that this must include concrete steps to reduce the number of people we incarcerate as well as to make the case for more jail space if deemed necessary (our jail numbers have increased by 500% since 1995 while our crime rates have not, and our area population has grown by only 25%).

Note: The Moseley firm was involved in the study that went into the design and construction of the present maximum security jail on South Liberty Street in 1995. This replaced an existing jail with a capacity of 70 inmates. Our present one, built for 208 but double bunked to hold up to twice that number, is poorly designed to serve the needs of its majority of non-violent offenders.

August 7, 11 and 14: Open hearings on the matter were held at Spotswood High School, the City Council Chamber and at Turner Ashby High School.  According to the Moseley report, "Most citizens attending the public “Listening Sessions,” were vocally opposed to expanding jail capacity and expressed frustrations at what they perceived was a lack of jail alternative programs and treatment options for persons processed through the local criminal justice system."

Note: Actually, no one actually spoke out in favor of building a second jail, but many encouraged options like the use of Restorative Justice, the use of more GPS ankle monitoring systems for home incarceration (but allowing persons to continue their employment), more treatment options for drug offenders, etc.

November 20: Moseley Architects issued its report, which recommends a $63 million second jail to be built next to the County Landfill, but also includes recommendations for alternatives like making bond available to more of the 40% of jail inmates who are presently in jail awaiting trial, having a Drug Court that would focus more on treatment alternatives to incarceration, establishing a Day Reporting program such as already proven successful in reducing jail numbers, etc. The report includes no mention of restorative justice, however, in spite of the fact that the Fairfield Center and EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding have for years been pioneers in this internationally recognized process. Neither was ever contacted by Moseley.

Note: The City of Richmond recently engaged in a five year (rather than a five month) study prior to building a new jail.

December 8:  A 20-member Community Criminal Justice Board, which hasn't met in over a year, will convene to give its approval before the proposal for state funding for the $63 million proposal can go forward (with an estimated $10 million additional annual budget for operating costs).   This meeting, set for 4 pm Monday at the County Administration building at 20 E. Gay Street, is open to the public but is not an open hearing. 

Note some interesting facts about the membership of the CCJB as mandated by the state:

1. It is made up entirely of people with government-funded positions.
2. The majority of its members are a part of the very criminal justice system they are appointed to oversee.
3. With the exception of the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors and the Mayor of Harrisonburg, no one represents the business community or any other part of the private or non-profit sector (such as non-governmental service providers and/or other non-profit service agencies or institutions).
4. The make up of the group bears no resemblance to the racial and ethnic diversity of our community.

December 9: The Harrisonburg City Council will take some kind of formal action on the proposal.

December 10: The County Board of Supervisors will do the same at its 3 pm meeting. 

Note: I know we're having to pay $1 million a year to house some of our inmates at the Middle River Regional Jail just 25-minutes away (which has a capacity of 900 and has never been full), but compared to what we could be investing in as proposed by the Moseley plan this could be seen as a phenomenal bargain.

I welcome any needed corrections or comments.

Click here for more posts on local jail concerns, and here's an interesting link about Virginia's "peculiar" jail system.
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