Benton County’s criminal justice system assessment process got off to a rocky start last Tuesday with a public launch event that drew a number of pointed questions from the audience about the county’s motives.
After voters rejected a $25 million bond measure to build a new jail in November 2015, county officials began talking about the need for a broad-based evaluation of the local criminal justice system, including a hard look at whether to upgrade or replace the capacity-challenged jail and the historic but aging courthouse.
Last month, the Board of Commissioners approved a $171,000 consulting contract to do just that, following a selection process that attracted proposals from three companies.
CGL, a national corrections planning and design firm, will perform a system analysis and needs assessment; prepare a set of three alternative recommendations for improvements, with a cost-benefit analysis for each one; and draft a final report by the end of the year. Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. is in charge of project management and public outreach.
The enterprise is being overseen by a 15-member Criminal Justice Steering Committee, which consists mainly of county officials, judges and law enforcement representatives, with a sprinkling of community members.
Commission Chair Xan Augerot, who also sits on the steering committee, kicked off a community meeting Feb. 20 attended by about 50 people at the new Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Corvallis. She assured the audience that the process would be thorough, “data-driven” and transparent, with plenty of opportunities for public participation and no pre-ordained outcomes.
“I think there’s a wonderful opportunity ahead of us to have this community dialogue,” Augerot said.
“We don’t have foregone conclusions, although we know there are issues with facilities.”
But members of the audience expressed skepticism.
Some asked why the steering committee was so heavily weighted toward the people who control the justice system, with no representation for groups such as crime victims, jail inmates and their families, the homeless and people with mental health issues.
Others wondered if CGL, a firm that is involved in the business of designing correctional facilities, could be objective in its analysis of the county’s facilities needs.
Still others suggested that some citizens are convinced the county would use the assessment process as an excuse to justify building a new jail, no matter what the consultants recommended.
All of those concerns were addressed at the meeting, either by county officials or the consultants themselves.
Ari Basil-Wagner of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. said the consultants wanted participation from as many groups and individuals as possible who come into contact with the justice system, and she asked audience members to give their recommendations.
“If there’s someone not here whose voice you think needs to be heard, put it on your piece of paper,” she urged.
Karl Becker, a senior vice president with CGL, acknowledged that his company designs correctional facilities but said it also has wide experience in objectively analyzing the needs of community justice systems.
“We think it’s a strength of the company that we have different skills that can be brought to bear,” he said.
And County Administrator Joe Kerby, who started the job last summer, said the commissioners made it very clear during the hiring process that they are not wedded to the idea of a new jail despite their concerns about the current facility.
“They underscored the fact that this would not be a jail study, this would not be a facilities study,” he said. “The commissioners have continued to say that this is to be a systems review and we would make decisions based on that review.”
Perhaps the most unexpected endorsement of the process came from community member John Detweiler, who has been a vocal and persistent critic of the county’s previous efforts to pass a jail bond, which date back to 2000.
“I’ve been fighting the county for years because they have a tendency to hire PR firms to ‘educate’ the voters,” he said.
But this time, Detweiler said, the Board of Commissioners has hired a legitimate analytical firm to take an in-depth look at the justice system.
“I think this is the best thing that has happened in 15 years,” he said. “The county commission is finally beginning to do this right.”
The assessment will be a four-phase process, Becker said, beginning with a detailed documentation of the system that is currently in place. That should be done by May, followed by an assessment of the system’s needs that is due by July.
In August, he said, the firm would present three alternative scenarios for ways to improve the system, including modeling to show the likely costs and impacts of each approach, with a final report to the Board of Commissioners in December.
The timeline also includes more community meetings and other opportunities for public comment.
“We’ve done these kinds of projects in a number of jurisdictions, and we believe this is a reasonable schedule,” Becker said.