Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.
The Washington Daily News is once again feeding us the line our "leaders" want us to believe. Those leaders include Alan Jordan, Jerry Langley, Al Klemm and Jay McRoy. They say we need to spend millions of dollars for not only a new jail but a new sheriff's office. Yet they offer nothing but anecdotal abstract notions to support this idea. Remember, the County is broke. And the WDN not only lets them get by with it, but carries their water for them.
Where's the data? That is what the WDN should be asking. The Observer has already ask, three times...and has yet to receive anything that shows this so-called "need."
We have asked to see the jail records that include the historical census of prisoners. We did so after Chief Deputy Harry Meredith said in a Commissioners' meeting recently that "we've got some of them (prisoners) who have been in there (jail) for more than a year awaiting trial." We found that astounding. In fact, we find it hard to believe. But what is the average tenure of felons? Is the problem really the size of the jail or is it the inefficiency of the courts? What types of crimes are contributing to the load on the jail? How many of these inmates are repeat offenders who might should be sent to state prison? How effectively are they using electronic monitoring?
And above all, why are we being told that the need for a new jail justifies a new office complex being built? You have to wonder what's going on when the justification is that the roof leaked. How many people in Beaufort County built a new house because Irene caused their roof to leak? How much of the square footage of the current building is being used? We understand the second and third floors are not used. What would be the relative cost of renovation compared to a new facility?
Back to the jail. We were told by the WDN that one reason a new facility is needed is because there are "blind spots" in the current facility. In a day and age of video monitoring we wonder how this can be. But even if true, the argument still begs the question of just how many inmates the current facility could accommodate according to state prescribed standards and could renovation improve current operations and even expand capacity there? Perhaps what we really need is an auxiliary jail.
Then we're told by the WDN that flooding is a problem. Show us the data. Give us the dates and amount of flooding. Are we talking hundred year flooding, 500 year flooding or every time it rains two inches? Is this a jail location problem or a drainage problem? Do they use pumps? If so do they work correctly? If not, why not?
But the main reason we question whether a new facility is needed is simply because the Sheriff will not release the data. What are they hiding? Why would they not want the numbers to be seen by all? Why would the WDN not ask for them? This smells.
And how could a commissioner, like Al Klemm, have already decided what the solution is before he knows the problem? Perhaps Mr. Klemm is clairvoyant as he and Mr. McRoy were on the hospital but we suspect they are about as off target on the jail/office issue as they were about the hospital at the time they decided who should run the hospital before they even saw the proposals. Looks like they are headed for the same "blindman's bluff" with the jail issue.
And Judge Sermons is quoted as saying something must be done within the next two years. That is impossible. Surely he knows it. You could not possibly build what Sheriff Jordan is asking for within two years. Why? Simply because the money is not in hand. It would take at least a year to arrange financing for a new facility. That would likely require a bond vote and a tax increase and getting a tax increase passed for a jail or an office facility in the depths of a depression is not a real bright idea. (And for 20% of the people in Beaufort County the correct term is depression.) Judge Sermons and District Attorney Seth Edwards need to come forward with some solid data to show that the courts are operating at maximum efficiency with regard to the jail load before the public can be expected to believe this is an emergency. Perhaps it is. The problem is that we just don't have the data.
Jay McRoy, quoted by the WDN, as saying that judges set bonds low because of overcrowding of the jail is but another bogus assertion, just like he made about reimbursement rates at the hospital
which was also reported without question by the WDN. He has NO data to support this. He cannot tell us the numbers. Moreover, bond is not supposed to be set according to keeping someone in jail, but rather to insure they show up when scheduled to appear in court. Mr. McRoy has a duty now to show us how many "Failures To Appear" were the result of bonds being set lower than the norm. Let us see your numbers Mr. McRoy. And let us see the numbers broken out by ethnicity. We wonder how much of the "Failure to Appear" problem is rooted in the illegal immigrant population. In fact, we are suspicious that just maybe the increase in jail population may be related to illegal immigrant crime. Perhaps that is what Sheriff Jordan is hiding. You reckon?
What we do know is this: The total population of Beaufort County has been very stable for the last 15 years. The population would have declined had it not been for the growth in Hispanics. Is that what is causing the "crisis" at the jail? During the last sheriff's campaign we were told "crime has gone down." If so, why has the jail become more crowded? We were told if we spent money for electronic monitoring it would reduce the number of incarcerations pending trial. Were we told wrong? Why are the Sheriff and Manager not providing us that data?
What we do know is what Hood Richardson said at the November meeting is exactly correct: "The jail population is a policy issue, not a bricks and mortar issue." And he is exactly right. Policies (Federal, state and local) determine the need for jail space. So which of those policies is driving this "need"? Which policies have failed to do what we expected? We can't know for sure without data.
We have a hunch we do have a major problem with the jail. But we also know that the necessary analysis of the problem and the alternatives will not be achieved by a "walk through" by the Grand Jury, a committee of Commissioners or a reporter. There is no doubt the public does not know the parameters of the problem and we are sure the public does not know the alternatives available for solving the problem. Our leaders have apparently jumped over all of the details and come to a conclusion and as Jerry Langley says, "the issue is (only) where to build it." Surely he knows you don't decide where before you decide what to build. We need better leadership than that.
This same group of five commissioners wasted over ten million dollars on the school bond issue
. They (Klemm, McRoy, Langley, Booth and Cayton) spent $39 million without knowing how many students they had and how much capacity they had and where the excess capacity and needed capacity were. And they still don't know (although we hear they are sitting on a study that would show that. Wonder why it's not been made public?)
Yes, we need better leadership than this. We needed better leadership when the old Washington High School/P. S. Jones facility became available. Why could that not have been converted to a Law Enforcement Complex? Maybe Quick Start II should become a law enforcement facility? But then how does the City feel about a jail being located miles outside Washington? And how about Belhaven? How do they feel about moving the jail/magistrates office further from them?
We're not suggesting any of those options. Rather what we're suggesting is that the fact that such considerations are not even being discussed shows the dismal leadership of Alan Jordan, Chairman Langley, the County Manager and the majority of the board are providing here.
We would respectfully suggest that "the problem" is not an overcrowded or inadequate jail. Rather, the problem is a lack of leadership. And we have no business considering spending millions of dollars until that leadership problem is corrected. This group of commissioners, with two exceptions, wasted enough money on school construction to build a first class Law Enforcement Center. And that fact shows clearly what the real problem is.
And we would respectfully suggest to the WDN that simply parroting the anecdotal testimony of a couple of ignorant officials (yes, they are ignorant, as explained above) is not fulfilling the responsibility the media has to inform the public debate on this issue.
We can all do better than this.