Editorial from News Herald Staff

Jail talks head in wrong direction

Just when we thought members of the Loudon County Corrections Partnership were working toward a relatively cost-effective and common sense solution to mitigating inmate overcrowding and an impending jail decertification, officials have seemingly made a 180-degree turn to consider a plan that could cost more than double previous projections.
At one time or another, options have included constructing a basic facility to address the most pressing inmate population concerns for about $8-$12 million, renovating the current Justice Center with more jail cells and courtroom space for $15-$20 million or erecting a free-standing facility to house the entire court system and Loudon County Sheriff’s Office on a new piece of property.
The latter option originally came with an estimated price tag of more than $47 million, according to an earlier study conducted by Moseley Architects.
With all of these options on the table, the committee last summer seemed set on moving ahead with a scaled-back approach to renovate and expand the current jail to meet existing needs that would be a little more palatable to taxpayers and mollify the state.
Spending $43 million on school buildings is one thing, but asking residents to contribute more of their hard-earned money on shiny new digs for inmates is another thing altogether. That’s why we praised the panel last summer for its move in coming up with a “wiser and more frugal investment” opportunity than simply throwing tens of millions of dollars at an unwieldy project that would sap local resources.
We apparently spoke too soon.
The committee is now considering an option to overhaul the current facility for $20 million or construct a new standalone Justice Center at Centre 75 Business Park off Interstate 75 for about $30 million. At least for now, the more frugal $10 million project seems to have been discarded.
Of course, if the county moves forward on one of the two larger projects, taxpayers won’t just feel the pinch in the form of a property tax increase — county officials have said the rate would need to be raised by 8-9 cents to help pay for a $25 million jail, which is likely an optimistic estimate.

Committee members should also consider residual expenses like additional jailers to manage a larger facility, increased utility costs and additional maintenance expenses and overhead.
Some of the public would no doubt balk at spending even $10 million for a new jail, but we are highly skeptical that the required majority of six people on Loudon County Commission will vote to approve a tax increase for a $20 or $30 million project.
Nonetheless, as the Corrections Partnership continues to see-saw between the various options that have been floated up until now, the county has paid out thousands of dollars — at least $100,000 through December 2015 by our count — in feasibility study fees and design work. The only people who seem to be benefiting from the committee’s work up to this point are consultants and architects.
While court officials seem to be doing all they can to streamline the process of moving inmates through the system, more should be done to address the underlying societal problems that land people in jail in the first place.
What if, instead of constructing an expansive new facility that will just be full again in a matter of years, the county goes back to the cheaper option to meet the state requirements, plan for some future growth and then make some investments into actual inmate rehabilitation through inmate worker initiatives, counseling services and life skill programs to get troubled juveniles and adults out of the revolving door of the jail and onto a path toward becoming functioning members of society?
It’s right there in the name of the committee. “Corrections” is and should be an integral part of any justice system.
If state and local governments are not working to identify and treat the root causes of crime, they have failed the very people they exist to serve.