Rethinking Jails

Kootenai County needs more innovation to deal with lawbreakers, not a bigger jail

Kootenai County has a jail problem. Everyone agrees there are currently too many inmates and too few beds for the 27-year-old building to continue to meet the county's need for correctional space.

I'm currently viewing the jail situation while coming down off a musical high acquired from an amazing performance of Les Misérables at the Coeur d'Alene Community Theater. On the tiny stage in that small building, the wickedly smart George Green, with his clever troupe, manages to deliver a mesmerizing punch — as powerful as any on a big city stage.

As most know, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, who was thrown into prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's fatherless children. The compassion of a generous priest inspired Jean Valjean to turn to a life of doing good.

No, I'm not going to suggest that we return to the torturous prisons of 1862, when Victor Hugo penned the story of Jean Valjean, to cram more bodies into the already overcrowded jail on the outskirts of Coeur d'Alene.

But I am going to suggest that Kootenai County should look for new, creative solutions to its overcrowding problem. Les Misérables on a tiny stage is a lesson in the importance of thinking creatively when a problem begs a solution.

The cruel days of inflicting chains, beatings, moldy bread and gruel on prisoners have been ruled out in most civilized countries. Still, one of the threats hanging over Kootenai County's head is a potential court order to bring the jail into compliance with accepted standards.

The for-profit company, Rocky Mountain Corrections, was very creative in proposing to build a new, privately owned, 625-bed jail at a cost to Kootenai County of $8 million to $10 million a year.

County Commissioner Jai Nelson strongly opposed the corporation's proposal, saying the county could not afford the enormous price tag. She suggested the lease agreement was an end run around the voters, who have, on three separate occasions, turned down proposals to expand jail space.

In late August, Judge John Stegner examined the proposed lease agreement and ruled it to be unconstitutional. Whew.

Two new county commissioners will be elected Nov. 4. We can hope they will throw out the Rocky Mountain Corrections proposal and follow Commissioner Nelson's recommendation to consider the many workable alternatives to incarceration that are in use today all around the country.

In turning down requests for tax dollars to expand jail space, Kootenai County voters probably were reflecting a definite change in attitudes toward jails and prisons and their enormous cost in dollars and human lives.

Not so very long ago, legislators outdid themselves to prove they were not soft on crime. They enacted mandatory sentencing laws right and left, which simply implied that there are some crimes that can never be forgiven. Such laws may indeed punish real criminals, but the by-catch includes a wide variety of redeemable individuals. Better to leave the discretion to judges to render appropriate sentences.

Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging and many judges are choosing alternatives to jail or prison time. Most of the alternatives are not cheap, as they generally require hiring more personnel. But any alternative is a better investment than building a jail cell for an offender to sit in all day and sleep in all night, at a cost of $35,000 to $50,000 a bed to build. And then there's the cost of feeding and supervising an inmate, which runs somewhere around $25,000 a year.

If the county budget were increased to hire more probation officers, a process referred to as "intensive probation" would allow judges to sentence an offender to house arrest with an ankle radio device, or to check into an office or the jail daily, or have a breathalyzer device installed in the offender's automobile.

Our local judges have already established alternative drug courts, where offenders follow a regimen of remaining drug-free, submitting to random urine testing and attending drug treatment group sessions.

Local judges have also utilized domestic violence and mental health treatment under court supervision. Such programs have proven to be effective in helping steer offenders onto new, safer and healthier paths. In addition to living with or close to family, the offender on intensive probation can work at a job, earn a living and pay his way.

People who break laws usually have underlying conditions that can be addressed, such as addiction or mental illness. Treating those underlying conditions can prevent future lawbreaking, save taxpayer dollars, and reduce crime.

Of course, if it were that easy, we could all go down to the seashore and live happily ever after. But if Kootenai County could start heading in that direction, its jail overcrowding problem would soon be history. ♦

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