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Ashland Council Approves Jail Plan, Sending Choice To Voters

Erik Neumann / JPR

The Ashland City Council approved a resolution Tuesday night that could make way for a new Jackson County jail. Previously, Ashland was the only city in Jackson County blocking the plan.

Council members voted five to one to leave the decision for a new jail in the hands of voters during the May 2020 election.

“You don’t want us to be the people to say ‘You can’t vote.’ That’s a slippery slope,” said Ashland councilmember Dennis Slattery. “This is a decision that needs to be held in Jackson County.”

With the affirmative decision, Ashland joins nine other cities in Jackson County to create a funding mechanism, known as a service district, to pay for the $171 million property tax-funded proposal. The City of Talent previously voted no on the jail resolution.

Tuesday’s meeting attracted local mental health providers from Jackson County’s crisis services, Coordinated Care Organization representatives, and residents from Phoenix and Medford.

“If you are not the victims of crime, your city parks aren’t littered with used needles even in the children’s areas, your properties aren’t devalued, then I guess you feel you are entitled to prohibit the rest of us from voting on one solution that would reduce crime in our neighborhoods,” Medford resident Christine Lachner read from a statement to the council.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia argued in favor of the proposal to expand the jail from approximately 300 to 800 beds. According to Mejia, the biggest problem is that people charged with crimes don’t show up for their court hearings.

“Why? Because there’s no consequence,” Mejia said.

More jail space will reduce the number of inmates being released early and pressure individuals who are charged with crimes to appear for their court hearings, he argued, thus preventing them from accumulating more serious charges.

“I really do think that the criminal justice system in Jackson County is in crisis right now,” Mejia said.  

Ashland city councilmembers blocked the jail plan during their last meeting. Councilmembers were seeking more funding for mental health and substance-abuse programs from Jackson County. However, county officials emphasized that mental health funding lies with the state’s Coordinated Care Organizations that took up mental health services from Jackson County Mental Health several years ago.

“We don’t have control of that money,” said Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser. “The money that used to flow to us, now flows to them.”

Ashland City Councilmember Julie Akins was the only representative to vote against the jail resolution.

“This is not an endorsement of the measure,” said Ashland Mayor John Stromberg. “This is an endorsement that the decision belongs to the voters of Jackson County.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.