Jackson County is moving quickly to build a new jail. Should voters have a say?

The Jackson County Detention Center
The Jackson County Detention Center File photo

Jackson County is moving quickly to design and build a new jail.

A framework for constructing a new facility is now circulating at the courthouse. A new jail, costing roughly $180 million or more, would be built on land east of I-435 near Truman Road. Construction could begin as early as next summer, according to a timetable distributed to county legislators last week.

The existing downtown jail — the site of ongoing dysfunction, violence and scandal — would eventually be torn down.

Discussions about a new jail are welcome and long overdue. More than a year ago, we said fixing the old jail downtown is not an option and urged county officials to begin planning for a replacement.

The recent news that an inmate apparently committed suicide at the current jail only reinforced our concerns.

Still, the plans for a new jail should not be adopted without a thorough review. There are several important questions county officials must address before the work can begin.

For example, voters apparently will not be asked to approve the new jail. Instead, county officials believe they can reverse previous tax reductions, providing roughly $19.5 million each year for debt service on a new jail, and other expenses. No vote would be needed.

Proceeding with a major capital improvements project without voter approval is problematic. Residents may want to make their voices heard on the new jail — not just the financing, but the design and location as well. County legislators should think hard before excluding voters from this process.

There are other concerns. A $180 million construction fund may be enough to build just 1,000 beds in a new jail, roughly 250 more than the current facility.

A 1,000-bed jail may not be big enough. The new facility must have a lifespan of 30 years or more, and it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the facility will need to be larger than the plan that is currently being contemplated.

It makes little sense for the county to go through the laborious process of building a new jail for mere incremental improvements. Jackson Countians will want a jail that’s safe, secure and cost-effective, and 1,000 beds may not be enough to meet that goal.

If a 1,500-bed jail is affordable, Jackson County should explore that option.

There are also whispers that the county may want to contract with a private company to build the jail, or run it, or both. While the specifics of such a partnership are not clear, the bar for approving such an arrangement is incredibly high.

Running a jail is a primary responsibility of government, and protecting the public and inmates should never be restricted by a profit motive. Similar privatization efforts in other cities and states have not worked out well.

While there is still some time to discuss these and other concerns, the Jackson County Legislature is moving quickly. The timetable calls for obtaining purchase options for a jail site by the end of the year, then picking a designer and builder in the first six months of 2019.

Momentum for a new jail is welcome news. But Jackson County should not rush into a decision officials and residents will regret 10 years from now. If it takes extra weeks or months to finalize the right plan, legislators should take that time.