Is Buncombe County planning to spend millions of dollars to build a new jail?
The problem is, we don’t know. Public discussion on the issue seems to indicate the majority of county commissioners oppose Sheriff Van Duncan’s proposal to build a new detention center — and yet, according to the Mountain Xpress, as recently as a few months ago, the sheriff was still pitching the board on the idea that more construction is the way to go [see http://avl.mx/477].
But extra jail space is not a solution to rising jail populations for many reasons — a fact which the board itself recognized back in February when it embraced a different vision for addressing the growing number of mental health and substance-use-related issues in the county [see http://avl.mx/4i5].
This vision is “diversion,” which moves people away from incarceration and instead offers treatment, social services and access to an array of resources available through the county and its community partnerships.
The board allocated funds for the creation of a comprehensive new diversion program and facility called the Justice Resource Center and hired a coordinator tasked with finding new tools for diversion and coordinating provision of services. The Justice Resource Center officially opened [in November], meaning that this strategy can now begin in earnest.
Importantly, when the board voted unanimously to create the center, it did so with the explicit goal of avoiding construction of a new detention center. At that time, even the sheriff publicly acknowledged the desirability of this approach — so why is he now attempting to undercut this solution by continuing to push for construction of a new jail?
Perhaps the sheriff would say that his proposal is a “pragmatic” one in case diversion alone can’t get results. But this would misrepresent the nature of these different approaches as being complementary. They aren’t. Expansion is inherently at odds with a commitment to reframing how we think about and respond to so-called “crime,” which is at the heart of what will make diversion effective in the long run. Moreover, we know from decades of prison expansion in this country that once facilities have been constructed, they will be used, even when crime rates drop. The two approaches are simply irreconcilable.
From all available evidence, the main factors behind the rising jail population are:
1. Deepening substance abuse and mental health crises.
2. Increasing economic inequality and precariousness.
3. Intensifying criminalization and harassment of poor people and people of color by law enforcement and others in the criminal justice system.
The board’s embrace of diversion is a laudable attempt to address the first of these factors by providing care for substance abuse and mental illness rather than doling out punishment.
We have good reason to believe that such a “health and human services” approach could significantly reduce numbers in the jail, since the vast majority of people held there were arrested for the very things diversion was put in place to target. For example, figures compiled by the county suggest that 70 percent of the jail population is involved in substance abuse, and the number of people at the jail being monitored for withdrawal increased by 30 percent between 2015 and 2016.
The sheriff, in contrast, is asking us to invest yet more of our finite resources in the same failed strategy that got us where we are today. This is not speculation; the data provided by the sheriff in his presentation to the board showed that even if a new facility were constructed, overcrowding would again become an issue within 10 years, requiring yet more construction down the line. In this context, how can anyone honestly consider building a new jail to be a “solution”?
Buncombe County residents deserve answers. Commissioners should make their position on this issue known, clearly and publicly, at the earliest possible date, so that we no longer have to worry about whether this disastrous proposal is still looming on the horizon.
— Julie Schneyer