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No easy answer when it comes to building jail

By JEFF WEBB Editor of Editorials
Published April 1, 2007


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We should never give up hope that one day the people we pay our taxes to will spend more of it to prevent crime than they do to build jails for criminals.

But until they can reach a consensus on that philosophical approach, and give it a generation or three to prove it can work, our society is obligated to enforce laws and provide a place to lock up the bad guys and girls.

Sadly, the number of miscreants continues to grow proportionately with the population and the enactment of more laws, and Hernando County is no exception.

For the second time in the past four years, county commissioners face the prospect of expanding the jail on Spring Hill Drive. The last time they did, it cost $11-million to add 300 extra beds. That brought maximum capacity at the jail to 730 prisoners, and when the commissioners borrowed the money to pay for it, they expected the expansion would last at least 5 years.

As it turns out, that was wishful thinking. Based on the number of prisoners entering the jail this year, it will exceed capacity in May 2008, according to Jim Gantt, the purchasing director who oversees the contract with Corrections Corporation of America, the private company we pay to run the operation at the county-owned building. So, the 5-year plan has turned into a 3-year plan, and the commission has to decide soon what to do about it.

The options are fairly limited. The county can:

- Add about 240 more beds, at an estimated cost of $6-million to $8-million, by placing them on top of the last addition. From the time the order is placed for the vertical expansion, it would be about seven months until the beds were ready for the no-goodniks to lay their little headies down.

- Buy property adjacent to the jail and build a free-standing facility. That cost is unknown depending on the price of the land and the size of the facility, but it's safe to say it would surpass the aforementioned expansion option by tens of millions.

- Build another jail somewhere else in the county, either on county-owned or purchased land. Again, the cost is a question mark, but it would be way, way more than the quick-fix expansion.

The county doesn't even have the $7-million-or-so for the 240-bed vertical expansion, much less the enormous sum it would need to buy land and build a new facility. But the problem is real and must be dealt with. So, the question becomes - just like it does in your household budget - how to pay for it.

The County Commission could borrow, just as it did in 2003 to pay for the $11-million expansion, and spread the cost over 20 years at an interest rate higher than the old loan. Or it could use its contingency fund, which already is below state-recommended levels. Or it could ask residents to approve a sales tax increase, a portion of which would be used to pay for the jail and the remainder to pay for other facilities.

The reality is that voters are more likely to cash their paychecks and hand out dollar bills on the corner than they are to voluntarily tax themselves to put a roof over, and pillows under, the heads of a bunch of lawbreakers.

All of which introduces a third option, one that was discussed in very general terms at the County Commission meeting last week.

Representatives of CCA, the jail operator, said they are willing to discuss footing the bill for a new jail "if it fits the model." Their "model" might be like the facility they opened last year adjacent to the Citrus County jail in Lecanto. That is a free-standing structure with an additional 360 beds. The public doesn't know how much it costs because the law, lamentably, doesn't require CCA to release its financial ledgers.

There also is speculation that, if the county bought land adjoining the Hernando County jail, CCA might be interested in paying to build a big-ol' lock-up that would house up to 2,000 inmates, including those charged with federal crimes and trucked in from other counties. In exchange for its sizeable capital investment, CCA probably would want an agreement similar to the one it has in Citrus County, which gives it a long-term contract that depreciates over time and hands the facility back to the county after 20 years.

The problem with that, as I see it, is it locks the county into a marriage from which it cannot be granted a divorce. If the county decides to terminate the contract because it is unhappy with the job CCA is doing, it would have to buy back the facility. But if the county builds the jail, it can fire CCA without penalty and just a couple of months notice.

Given that CCA and the County Commission have been at odds over little things like inmates' escapes, suicides, certification of guards and lax booking procedures, a long-term commitment with a one-sided escape clause might be a bit chancy.

No matter how you look at it, there is no easy answer. But if I were running the show, I'd propose this:

- The commission should authorize in next year's budget the 240-bed vertical expansion of the jail. That's what it was designed for, and the cost, while substantial, is manageable, even if it means issuing a short-term bond. The sooner it is approved, the less the construction costs would be.

Under no circumstances should the county dip into its contingency fund to pay for this capital project. That money should be saved for real emergencies, like natural disasters and lawsuits.

- And the commission should start looking now for land where it can build another jail in the next 5 to 10 years. That might be next to the existing facility, or it might be somewhere else in the county. It might even be on land the county already owns, like the landfill on U.S. 98 north of Brooksville. It might be farther east, where population growth is already planned, but before residents move in and predictably oppose a correctional facility in their back yard.

- This might be an opportunity to build a jail that separates pre-trial prisoners from those who are convicted and serving their sentences. After all, that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty theory suggests that we might want to treat them differently.

It's a shame that so many of our resources are consumed by putting up people who don't get it, as opposed to pumping money into socially progressive programs for those who, if they had better opportunities for education, health care and jobs, probably would become solid citizens.

Until then, we'll build pens to keep the bad guys and girls at bay, and dig deeper into our pockets to pay their way.

Jeff Webb can be reached at (352) 754-6123 or webb@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 1, 2007, 07:36:12]


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