Monday, February 09, 2009

Why Not A Public Safety Bailout?

For a few days, I've been thinking about a Peter Bronson column and blog post from last week, in which our favorite pundit suggests that the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners should be seeking stimulus money for the construction of a new jail. And I can't help wondering: doesn't he have a point?

First, let's take care of debunking the all too familiar Bronson histrionics. From the column:

Records show that inmates with more than 100 charges against them were "let go" in the past month. DUIs, drug possession, indecency and other relatively minor crimes are first in line. But some were charged with assault, resisting arrest, breaking and entering, domestic violence, theft and menacing.
When I toured the jail last July, long before the budget cuts, I met two dozen nmates. Only two were marijuana cases, and it wasn't their first rodeo. The rest were a citizen's nightmare: assault, burglary, domestic violence, attempted murder, drug trafficking, aggravated robbery ...
Two points:
1. Judges often set own-recognizance bonds for assault and domestic violence cases in which the only witness is the prosecuting witness, particularly if an officer sees no sign of injury and issues a referral rather than signing a complaint him- or herself. "Theft" can be shoplifting a candy bar. And menacing sounds really bad, but it's actually a fourth-degree misdemeanor--the least serious offense for which imprisonment is an option. So how many "sheriff releases" would have been required to post a cash bond if they had seen a judge? Tough to know, and Bronson doesn't help us to extrapolate the number in any meaningful way.

2. Bronson's July jail tour isn't at all representative. For one thing, he toured the jail (according to that column) alongside Public Defender Lou Strigari while Strigari was making the rounds for felony arraignments. So guess what? Bronson met accused felons; aside from B&E, all of the crimes he describes in the first paragraph I quote are misdemeanors. For another, until it closed, Queensgate was a facility designed for low- and medium-risk inmates. That meant that Bronson would only meet the highest security risks (typically, those with the most serious charges lodged against them) in the Justice Center.

Now that that's out of the way, let's move to the meat of Bronson's column: that stimulus money could or should build a new jail for Hamilton County. On the surface, the proposal makes sense. A jail facility is a public works project. In the short term, it would create jobs (in the construction trades). And there's bipartisan agreement that Hamilton County's jail facilities are currently inadequate.

Bronson's proposal does not, however, solve other critical public safety problems. It does not restore the recently laid-off sheriff's deputies. The County would still need to find a way to finance the operation of a new jail (and corrections officers to staff it). While the Democrats had wanted to provide stimulus funds to put cops on the streets, the only way to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate was to strip those provisions out.

So Bronson's has the hint of a good idea: federal money could be sought to build the jail that a majority of voters have been thus far unwilling to finance with locally generated tax dollars. But without a plan to fund the operation of the jail, we could be spending millions for an empty building (see Queensgate for an example of a jail that lacks operations funding). Maybe Bronson's ready to unveil the rest of his plan to get us a working jail with federal funds. But he hasn't done it yet.

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