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My Turn 4-10
Reflections on jail overcrowding
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When I read Wednesday’s Southern Standard story by Lisa Hobbs, headlined “Jail addition estimated at $7 million,” subtitled “More space needed to ease overcrowding,” I thought, “Here we go again!”
As Lisa mentioned, “Overcrowding at the jail has been an issue for years. Currently, the jail has more than 300 inmates but a capacity to hold 251.” Clearly, overcrowding at the local jail is a serious problem. However, it does not necessarily follow that expanding the jail, again, is the proper solution.
Remember what happened the last time with jail overcrowding. That’s right, our feckless leaders picked a man with zero jail building experience to design our Warren County Jail expansion. Would they have selected someone with no house building experience and expertise to build their dream home with their hard-earned money? I doubt it.
As I recall, the $6.5 million jail expansion project was completed in 2005. I think we know how that all turned out. Not so good.
Now we seem to be sliding down that slippery slope again, from the unwarranted assumption to the foregone conclusion on how to solve the jail and prison overcrowding problems. I use the term “problems” on purpose, because the word “issue” seems too wishy-washy to me.
If our leaders are really serious about easing jail and prison overcrowding, they first need to define the true nature of these problems, then ferret out their root causes. Obviously, this process requires some creative thinking and action outside the cellblock, so to speak.
Once the problems and causes of inmate overcrowding are identified, the road to resolution becomes clearer. Fortunately, several states, including Alabama and Tennessee, have already begun to question, and turn away from the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key tradition of punishing offenders even harder.
Instead, these states are trying out new ideas like rolling back mandatory sentences, using alternative sentencing for some non-violent offenders, and community-based re-entry programs that reduce rates of recidivism. So far, these efforts appear to be more cost-effective and more humane than incarceration.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for protecting the public safety of our law-abiding citizens. However, I’m also all for commonsensical criminal justice reform, including alternatives to incarceration for minor, non-violent offenses.
For the reasons cited, I urge our judicial, political and law enforcement leaders at all levels to use the “Problem-Cause-Solution” pattern to weigh and consider the pros and cons of alternatives to resolve inmate overcrowding. That won’t be a panacea for eliminating or even reducing the magnitude of the problems encountered with overcrowding, but it’s sure worth a try.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at