Benton County Jail 1 (copy)

An inmate sits in a minimum security cell at the Benton County Jail. 

After a lengthy search, Benton County commissioners recently selected the company that will lead an in-depth analysis of the local criminal justice system: The commissioners voted to negotiate a contract and scope of work with CGL, one of two finalists for the project.

CGL, based in Miami, is a national corrections planning and design firm. Although the details still need to be ironed out, the contract with the company could be worth anywhere from $145,000 to $200,000.

The idea behind the in-depth study is to take a careful look at the county's entire justice system. Also critical: Finding ways to involve the public in the process. Expect the study to also take a detailed look at a full range of programs to reduce recidivism, including mental health programs and alternatives to incarceration. At least some voters believed that the county had not fully taken such programs into account in the last failed attempt, in November 2015, to pass a $25 million bond levy to build a new Benton County Jail.

That election marked the third time since 2000 that Benton County voters rejected a measure to build a new jail. But it was the most recent failure that sparked this effort for the in-depth study. In authorizing the study, Benton County officials might have been tipping their hat to a similar effort in Albany: After a bond measure to build a new fire station and police headquarters in that city failed, the City Council created a commission to examine why voters rejected it, and to make fresh recommendations to the council. The commission came up with a somewhat less expensive option, and Albany voters approved it. 

At the risk of stealing the thunder of the CGL study, let us provide a sneak preview of what it will conclude: The Benton County Jail, with just 40 beds, has become a bottleneck for the county's entire justice system. It forces law officers on the street to make decisions they don't think are well-advised in terms of who goes to jail and who doesn't. It forces judges to make decisions they don't want to make. It hobbles our ability to offer any kind of job-training or educational programming to inmates. 

If you want community-based corrections and alternatives to incarceration, that's a good impulse: Those programs often are more effective, both in terms of cost and recidivism, than incarceration. But these programs only work if a jail bed is empty and ready for someone in those programs who falls off the straight and narrow. Without that jail bed, those programs have no teeth. 

And we don't have that empty jail bed.

CGL likely will be taking a look at other issues: Our iconic and beloved Benton County Courthouse is simply not up to the challenge of serving as a 21st century courthouse. And in the event of any major earthquake, it's a deathtrap. We need to find new locations for courtrooms and the District Attorney's office. Our Law Enforcement Building is showing its age as well. By the time we're done tallying up the work that we need to do to bring our justice system into this century, that $25 million jail bond from 2015 may look like a bargain.

A little relief may be on the horizon: Benton County is on the list of counties that could get some money from the state in the 2019-21 budget cycle to help pay for at least some of this work. 

But that state money certainly won't cover the entire tab for all the work we're likely to need. So, over the next year or so, look for opportunities to get involved with the CGL project. Give some thought to what kind of justice system we need in Benton County. One thing is for sure: We need something better than this. (mm)

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