Ashtabula County needs a new jail.
The conclusion is inescapable and incontrovertible. Bringing the building up to required state standards would be an expensive and comparatively short-term fix that would still leave the county woefully inadequate when it comes to space, let alone the changing needs of a justice system adapting to focus on rehabilitation rather than simple incarceration. The new facility, which could cost between $30 million and $38 million, could have about 290 beds with 62 being specialized beds for inmates in mental health, medical or substance abuse crisis.
Criminal justice experts leave no room for doubt when it comes to the need for a new facility. There will be natural questions about expending the resources and staff for a jail when there is also a need for more road deputies. Focusing on treatment and factors that will reduce recidivism is the best strategy — even if some would rather lock inmates up and throw away the key. If that route is successful, and the number of inmates decreases significantly, the jail could rent space to federal prisoners — however the state wants to see counties deal with more fourth- and fifth-degree felons, so the additional space might be needed for them as well.
But most county residents are not criminal justice experts — nor are they expected to be. Which means the burden of selling the project falls to county officials. But the process of convincing the public of this need is going to be an uphill battle, particularly as it is likely to include a sizable tax increase of some kind to pay not only for the facility but additional people to staff it. It will require a near-flawless sales job from county officials to bring so many competing viewpoints together into a cohesive vision everyone can get on board with, and the process must be as open and unassailable as it can be.
On that front, some work remains.
This is the first project of this size pursued by the current group of county commissioners, and we are glad they have begun communicating a message to county employees to share with the public about the community corrections rehabilitation facility — their preferred term for a new jail because it illustrates that its purpose goes far beyond locking people up.
However, it would have been preferable for county officials to have hosted at least a few such open forums with the general public prior to spending $600,000 with Cleveland-based K2M Design Inc. for design services and to vet potential locations. While the money was going to need to be spent eventually, making an effort to start getting the public on board prior to investing any serious county capital in the project would have gone a long way.
To the county’s credit, officials hosted a year’s worth of community corrections meetings that were open to the public with Youngstown-based Strollo Architects, which helped go through options for what the county might be looking for in a new jail facility — ideas that K2M will most certainly incorporate. However, saying the public can always reach out and is welcome to attend open meetings is not the same as actively working to communicate with the public and inviting them to attend meetings — or even hosting the community corrections meetings at times more conducive to the public, as the commissioners have done with their own rotating evening meetings.
This process has fed a perception among many — fair or not — that county officials already know what they want in a jail and where they would like it to be located. And its location is one of the biggest elephants in the room. There is a real possibility the jail could be located outside the village of Jefferson, an issue that so upset Jefferson Village Council members they drafted an ordinance “insisting” the county keep the courthouse and jail within the village, which is the county seat.
Since that ordinance was drafted in April, the commissioners and village officials have met to try to get on the same page — and the county assured the village the courts will remain in Jefferson no matter where the jail goes. However, any tension between the two entities highlights the difficulties of getting all interested parties on board.
As we have said before, sunshine is the best antidote to such concerns. As this important process continues, we believe county officials need to bend over backwards to be as open and transparent as possible. The commissioners have said they will host a series of meetings following K2M’s report, which should be complete this month. The meetings will aim both to educate the public and seek their input — and finding the right balance between the two will be crucial in convincing the public the new jail is the necessity it truly is. In the absence of solid information, rumor and innuendo often take hold. The jail project, and the subsequent funding levy, are too important to the community overall to allow that to happen.