A little more than a week before Clatsop County commissioners decide whether to put a $23.8 million bond for a new jail on the November ballot, one of the county’s top law enforcement officials made another public pitch.
District Attorney Josh Marquis was the featured speaker Tuesday night at the Columbia Forum dinner, held at Columbia Memorial Hospital’s Community Center. During the talk, he laid out much of his case in favor of a new jail.
“You’re probably not going to be in jail. You’re not going to think about a jail. You’re not going to go to the jail, hopefully. Nobody you know will go to the jail,” Marquis said. “We are capped at 60 beds. We need at least 180 to 200.”
County commissioners approved a $51,000 feasibility study last year to explore relocating the jail from Duane Street in Astoria to the now-shuttered North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton. After commissioners and the sheriff’s office heard proposals from architects ranging from $12 million to $28 million, the current figure — which could include about $6 million paid directly by the state and county — is based on a designed 148-bed facility with space to expand in the future. Commissioners may decide on March 14 whether to refer the proposal to voters.
Marquis pointed to the fact that more than 40 percent of those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol — one of the more common crimes his office prosecutes — live outside Clatsop County.
“It’s mostly, frankly, tourists,” Marquis said.
The district attorney also addressed a recent idea from Richard Elfering — a local mental health advocate — to convert the former youth facility into a treatment center. Marquis said the costs would likely be double that of building a jail and operating costs would be as much as six times more.
“You know, not a bad idea,” Marquis said of Elfering. “However, there is no such facility anywhere in Oregon.”
About 75 percent of the people the district attorney’s office prosecutes likely have a substance-abuse issue, Marquis said. Nearly 70 percent of those in jail at a given time are awaiting trial. Several arrestees are released each week due to overcrowding.
“The fact of the matter is that there are a certain number of people who commit crimes that are of such danger to the community that if you do not detain them — and sometimes they are at rock bottom — they will either kill themselves, kill somebody else or destroy somebody else’s lives,” Marquis said. “A jail is a place where people who have demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to follow even the most basic rules are kept until you can have a trial.”
Clatsop County and local hospitals should use more resources to aid those with mental health and substance-abuse issues, Marquis said. He proposed that the county spend $350,000 for mental health professionals and that hospitals pick up more of the slack for such treatment.
“The county does not spend any of its own money on mental health,” Marquis said. “The county’s got to put some skin in the game.”
Discussions about prison and jail populations throughout the country have become more prominent in recent years. But about 75 percent of those convicted of a felony in Oregon are never transferred from a jail to a prison because they are not incarcerated long enough, Marquis said.
“We are not Texas, we are not Louisiana and we are not Florida,” Marquis said.
In a question-and-answer session following the talk, George McCartin — a county commission candidate in the May primary — asked why the county stopped discussing the $12 million option. Two previous bond measures have failed largely due to the cost.
Marquis said the cost of reconstructing the pod-like structure of the former youth facility would be less than the price tag to upgrade the current, vertically shaped jail downtown.
“It’s very different from a jail but it still has the same bones,” Marquis said.
The district attorney compared the need for a jail to the necessity of an emergency room at a hospital.
“You don’t want to use it. You don’t want to go there,” Marquis said. “But you want it to be up and running when you do go there.”