Public Safety Facility Advisory Committee recommends a new 70-bed jail be built in downtown Prineville area

JASON CHANEY - Mike O'Herron, co-chair of the Public Safety Facility Advisory Committee, addresses the Crook County Court and Prineville City Council in a joint work session on Tuesday afternoon.

After meeting for several months to examine the jail needs of Crook County, the Public Safety Facility Advisory Committee revealed its recommendation to local officials.

Meeting in a joint work session on Tuesday evening at Prineville City Hall, the Crook County Court and Prineville City Council listened as committee co-chair Mike O’Herron not only gave the group’s suggestion for a new jail, but explained how they arrived at that conclusion.

“Based on research and analysis of the issues currently facing public safety facility needs in the county, the committee recommends the following actions to the Crook County Court and the Prineville City Council,” O’Herron said, reading from the printed 28-page document the committee produced. “The Crook County Public Safety Facility Advisory Committee recommends constructing a new jail facility on county and/or city property in the area defined by Northeast Second Street, Northeast Elm Street, East First Street and Northeast Court Street. The new jail facility should accommodate at least 70 beds and should be designed and built to accommodate future growth when needed.”

Development of the recommendation by the approximately 20-person committee was facilitated by Jensen Strategies, a consultant firm based out of Portland. Erik Jenson characterized the firm’s role as the traffic cop for the conversation and noted that the committee put in many hours over many meetings to arrive at its conclusions.

“This was not a matter of sitting down in a two-hour meeting and coming up with a report,” he said, “but rather it was a process by which there was a lot of discussion and a lot of deliberation.”

O’Herron said the committee ultimately sought to answer four basic questions. Did the county need more jail beds? Should they build a jail, renovate an existing structure to house a jail, or rent more beds from Jefferson County? What other criminal justice facilities, if any, should co-locate in the jail building if one is built? And, where should a new building, if it is built, be located?

While all of the questions started out as unknowns for the committee, O’Herron said that research quickly revealed that the community indeed needed more jail beds.

“We currently have a total of 41 jail beds to serve our community,” he said, 16 of which are in the Crook County Jail and 25 of which are rented from Jefferson County. “In 2014-15, an average of 103 offenders per month served time in those jail beds, which means they were not in jail very long.”

However, the most significant statistic, O’Herron said, is that 70 to 90 offenders per month are not in jail, despite having been sentenced. He also referenced the matrix system that county correction is forced to employ, a system in which inmates are released based upon the severity of the crime and a host of other factors.

“Most other counties in Oregon don’t use it,” O’Herron noted, because they generally have an adequate number of jail beds to serve their inmate population.”

Having determined that Crook County needed more jail beds, the committee went on to determine how many more they needed. That topic generated a lot of discussion among committee members, O’Herron said, and all the while, they remained very cognizant of the cost involved.

“We knew everything we were going to recommend or consider involved money,” he said. “There is no free lunch here. You can’t go from 41 beds to 70 beds at the same cost.”

Before arriving at the recommended 70 jail bed number, the committee considered every amount between 50 and 80, the latter number based on a previous study conducted by the consultant firm DLR.

“We learned from Sheriff (John) Gautney and (former) Sheriff (Jim) Hensley and other professionals that a well-designed jail should not always be full,” O’Herron said, explaining that certain inmates need to be segregated from the general population, and extra jail space provides that buffer.

With 70 beds, the committee felt the jail could meet the public safety needs of the community and still allow space to segregate inmates, while keeping the cost at a level taxpayers could bear.

Having arrived at a jail bed figure, the committee then tackled whether the city and county should build a new jail or rent more beds from Jefferson County.

“This was a far more complicated question than we first realized and the committee started out somewhat divided on the issue of build versus rent,” O’Herron said. “But after a good deal of analysis and discussion, the committee strongly and in a unified way recommends either building a new jail or renovating a suitable facility.”

O’Herron said that since the early 2000s, Crook County has spent millions of dollars renting jail beds, and has no equity to show for it. He went on to note that Crook County currently spends $66 per day per jail bed rented, and another $12 in soft costs such as transportation and lost time for county deputies who shuttle inmates to Madras. Those costs do not include travel for counselors, public defenders or other Prineville-based staff who deal with Crook County inmates.

“We learned it would cost slightly less to operate a 70-bed jail in Crook County as it would to rent 70 beds in Jefferson County,” O’Herron said. “It is cheaper to do it here.”

Regarding location, the committee decided on the downtown Prineville area because it keeps the jail near other criminal justice facilities and moving the jail to another part of town would adversely affect restaurants that depend on the patronage of public safety staff.

Also, keeping the jail in the same part of town is expected to eliminate concerns from community members who don’t want a jail near their neighborhood. O’Herron noted that the residents and businesses near the current jail are already used to its presence, so a new jail in the same basic area should not prompt any complaints.

In summation, O’Herron likened the recommendation to the first leg of a relay race.

“We are handing the baton off to you now,” he said. “The committee has effectively reached the end of its mission.”

City and county officials were invited to ask questions or comment on the recommendation, but beyond thanking the committee for their work and commending their efforts, few of them spoke. Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe asked Gautney how he felt about the recommendation, and the sheriff said he supported the entire recommendation. He is particularly pleased with it because it would eliminate the need to transport inmates to Jefferson County, which sometimes poses a safety risk for his deputies.

Councilor Steve Uffelman asked Gautney if the county had the resources to operate a 70-bed jail. He said they did not currently, but indicated his staff would work through that issue if it became necessary.

Councilor Jason Carr took time to applaud the committee on their selection of downtown Prineville as a jail location, noting he has heard from businesses in the area who were greatly concerned about losing customers if the jail were moved elsewhere in town.

In its recommendation document, the committee urges local leaders to begin “an expedited process that ensures the gathering of sufficient information for a preliminary design and credible construction costs for a jail that will allow the county adequate time to develop a funding strategy that incorporates a bond with requests for private funds.”

“This has to be dealt with now,” O’Herron said.

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