In a guest column published last week, Richard Elfering, who identifies as a mental health advocate, claims the proposed new jail is utterly unnecessary, and instead argues Clatsop County should fund a massive treatment center, the cost of which is not discussed.
After 25 years I am leaving public office as your district attorney, so I have no personal or professional benefit that would accrue from the county finally having enough jail beds. I’m weighing in because, as a citizen, the failure to fund a new jail will mean our failure to appear rate will dramatically increase above the current 33 percent, and worse — more critically — vulnerable lives will be put at risk.
This isn’t political hyperbole. I invite anyone to come to court any weekday at 1:15 p.m. I, or one of my deputies, will be arraigning in-custody defendants and you’ll see the court forced to release people accused of felony domestic violence and other crimes, even many with lengthy histories of convictions. I’ll be happy to explain what and why we’re doing what we have to that day.
A jail is not a prison. It has completely different goals and design and it certainly is not “only punitive.” A jail is used primarily as a safe place to hold people not yet tried for serious crimes who’ve shown they are either unlikely to appear in court voluntarily or pose an immediate and serious risk to victims and the community. The claim that “the state and nation are trying to get out of the prison system” makes little sense. Oregon has no private prisons or jails, nor should it. It would be a utopian goal to “abolish prisons,” and I suppose by extension even jails. But that would be a massive abdication of responsibility.
We already spend millions of dollars on mental health services and while it’s still not enough (as I have repeatedly publicly advocated) the idea that we could — or should — involuntarily detain mentally ill people to force help on them simply won’t fly legally. There is no legal way to “briefly hold and detoxify” someone without due process. Beyond that it is extravagantly expensive, far beyond the jail proposed to be adapted from the recently closed Oregon Youth Authority facility.
It was hard enough — it took years and special outside funding — to open the crisis respite center in Warrenton and that only offers about a dozen nonsecure beds. In a better world we’d have a custodial psychiatric unit — essentially what the writer suggests — but that is far more expensive, takes far more staffing and requires a different funding stream.
Let’s start with our most immediate need and what we actually can afford. I’d like a brand-new Jaguar, but I can’t afford it. Few counties 10 times our size can afford a large treatment center.
The staff of the jail goes to great lengths to avoid keeping people whose primary issue is mental illness, not serious criminal behavior. We have an elaborate and expensive process for involuntary mental commitment. We spend additional millions in Clatsop County through the Oregon Health Plan. People in jail are not there because they’re depressed or addicted — they’re in for burglary, assault and child molestation.
Oregon, including Clatsop County, has a much lower incarceration rate than most of the United States. Jail is used to leverage cooperation by the 75 percent of those convicted felons on probation. At 60-bed maximum capacity, our jail is at about 30 percent of what the judges need. More importantly, nobody in Oregon — even someone in “full psychosis” — can be detained without a lawyer and a hearing.
Voters have turned down two previous jail bonds that would have required entirely new construction. This proposal about to be discussed on March 14 at the county commission uses an existing facility and will be partly funded by county timber revenues. Let’s not sink the jail proposal before it’s even proposed.
Come to the county commission meeting at 6 p.m. March 14 at the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria to hear what we have to say about the proposal to relocate the county jail to a larger facility in Warrenton. We desperately need more jail beds, which would be accomplished much more economically by this than any other plan.
Joshua Marquis is the Clatsop County district attorney.