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Law and Justice

Criminal Justice Expert Discusses Alternatives To A Bigger Jackson County Jail

Image of metal doors of cells in a jail.
Erik Neumann / JPR
Detox cells at the Jackson County jail. Law enforcement officials have been calling for a new jail, citing space concerns and overcrowding at the existing facility.

The Ashland City Council has signed onto  a plan to expand the Jackson County jail. Now, county voters will decide whether to spend $171 million to increase the jail’s size from around 300 to around 800 beds. 

James Cadogan of Arnold Ventures works with cities on criminal justice reforms. He’s a former lawyer with the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice. JPR's Erik Neumann spoke with Cadogan about potential jail alternatives in Jackson County. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Erik Neumann: I’ve talked with some of the local law enforcement officials about this question: should we be investing our money in alternatives and the perspective seems to be: ‘you can have all the alternative programs to a jail that you want but unless you have a way of holding people accountable those programs are going to fail.’ What do the current theories about criminal justice say about incarceration as a deterrent to crime?

James Cadogan: At the end of the day, we’ve never seen jails be a deterrent to crime, or the size of a jail be a deterrent to crime. The most important piece of the puzzle is, we actually just don’t get it right. We don’t get the right people behind bars. So, if you are a risk to society and might commit a new crime, but you have a lot of money, then you’re going to go free because you can bail yourself out. If, on the other hand, you are poor, you’re no risk, but can’t afford your bail, then you’re going to be detained. That is fundamentally in opposition to our system of government. And our understanding of what the presumption of innocence should mean.

EN: What are some of those alternative approaches that you’ve seen success with, that could work here?

JC: The formula is something like this: number one, the jurisdiction takes a look at who is eligible to be detained and cuts that down. In a lot of places that means looking at misdemeanors and saying that where there’s an allegation of a misdemeanor offense, we should have a presumption of release and release most of those people, with some public safety exceptions. If we have a presumption that for most misdemeanors people get to go home before their trial – and we’re talking about people who haven’t been convicted of anything, but against whom there is a allegation and a charge of a misdemeanor offense – you let them go home.

Step two is to support judges in making better decisions. In our case we supported the development of the public safety assessment in order to help judges make decisions based on the two criteria I mentioned before: who may be a risk of committing another crime? And who is most likely to show up? We’ve seen that where judges make better decisions that detention populations also have fallen.

The third is to make sure there is robust due process. When you have a lawyer who is able to argue on your behalf, that is a constitutional guarantee in the Sixth Amendment, then the court is much more likely to make a sound decision and somebody who should not be detained will get to go home.  

EN: Here in Southern Oregon mental health and substance abuse is a big problem. What’s the best way to respond to those populations?

JC: To be clear, pretrial justice right now and detention populations mostly reflect poverty, which is fundamentally unfair.  We shouldn't be criminalizing poverty and people shouldn't be held because they're poor. The exact same thing exists with respect to people with mental illnesses or who have substance-use disorder. What we know is that jails as a general matter are absolutely not the place that you want to put somebody who has a mental health issue and absolutely not the place where you want to put somebody who has substance-use disorder.

And so, there’s a ripe and robust conversation around diversion alternatives to treatment that will actually get people the services that they need instead of needlessly incarcerating people who have legitimate health and mental health issues.

I think it’s important for everybody in Jackson County to know that they are facing the same challenge that a lot of jurisdictions have across the country and that there’s a movement towards systems change that allows for jurisdictions to bring down the number of people who are held in their jails.