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Editorial: No vacancy at the jail

Wherever Rowan County decides to build a new jail, one thing’s clear. It needs to be in a location that will not only allow for growth now but accommodate future expansions as well. The increase in jail population shows no sign of easing up any time soon.
Rowan County got more evidence last week of just how bad its detention deficit really is. The state’s top jail official warned of “dangerous conditions” at the Rowan County Detention Center and called for “immediate actions” to remedy them. The problem, of course, is overcrowding. A facility designed to house 162 inmates has an average daily count that regularly exceeds capacity by more than 100. So far, the sheriff’s office has tried to make do with stop-gap measures such as outsourcing offenders to other counties and adding a 48-bed expansion pod (scheduled to come online next year), but at best those can only slow the hemorrhaging without addressing longterm structural inadequacies. Meanwhile, the cost estimate for a new county jail hovers around $35 million.
Rowan isn’t unique in its predicament. The jail cell shortage is a statewide as well as a nationwide problem. Prison populations and incarceration costs have both exploded in recent years. According to a recent study by the Pew Center, U.S. spending on prisons hit $49 billion in 2007. That’s a fourfold increase from the $11 billion the nation was spending 20 years ago. North Carolina’s inmate population jumped 2.6 percent in 2007 alone, and it’s projected that, even with new prison projects, the state will have a 6,000-bed shortage by 2017.
While an increase in the general population may inevitably bring a parallel increase in crime and punishment, some judicial experts are beginning to question whether the nation’s tough-on-crime approach may be getting untenably tough on taxpayers. While everyone wants public safety, it’s difficult to contemplate perpetually mounting costs to build new prisons, while also paying ever higher costs for new schools and other county and municipal services.
As a result, some states are beginning to revise their approach to non-violent crime and punishment. In an attempt to slow surging inmate populations, Kansas and Texas, for example, have adopted greater use of community supervision for non-violent offenders. Rather than re-arrest probationers and parolees who commit technical violations that would once have put them back behind bars, officials have begun using alternate sanctions, including community service. While that won’t address issues such as pretrial detainees, it could help use available prison space more effectively.
State and local officials who have to make the decisions involving sentences and cement are in a tough position. They don’t want to appear soft on crime or let serious offenders walk away to commit more mayhem ó but we can’t indefinitely sustain current rates in the growth of inmate populations. For now, Rowan County desperately needs a new jail. But eventually, North Carolina and other states will need to rethink correction policies so that they can keep serious offenders behind bars without holding taxpayers captive to nonstop prison growth and rising incarceration rates.

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