News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

April 19, 2014

EDITORIAL: Pondering the jail problem

County must handle issue responsibly

TERRE HAUTE — Our compliments to Vigo County Councilman Mark D. Bird for taking the time and investing the thought and energy into writing his detailed letter to the editor on the topic of the county’s jail, published in this newspaper on April 13.

The dialogue is healthy and can help produce the best path forward on the matter. We invite others to offer their views on this vital topic. Vigo County’s citizens can hope that the six other members of the County Council and the three county commissioners are equally as engaged as Bird on the issue.

In his letter, Bird disagreed with our editorial on the need for a new county jail (“New jail is right approach/Let experts study issue to be sure,” published March 31). We favor it. He appears not to.

Bird is more than entitled to disagree, and we welcome his sharing knowledge that he has gained from his position in county government. Still, respectfully, we need to clarify our view relative to points the councilman made in his letter.

In that editorial, we wrote, three-fourths of the way into the piece: “That top goal should be for Vigo County to have the best jail possible, not just one that meets the ACLU maximum capacity.”

Clearly, that statement was in the context of the top goal on the topic of the jail, not that the jail is the top goal of all issues facing the county and its finances, as Bird interprets it to be. Had we meant the jail is the top issue in the county, we would have said so. We didn’t.

And then Bird says we favor making a new jail a “Taj Mahal” — his words. We don’t, not if that means a luxurious, overly decorated, opulent space of large atriums, marble counters and plush rugs. By having the best jail possible, we mean a jail that meets current and future law enforcement, criminal justice and corrections needs that the best brains can devise and that Vigo County can afford. We want a jail that humanely houses prisoners, keeps jailers and visitors safe and protects the public from escapes. Why should we want any aspect of Vigo County not to be the best it can be?

We agree with Bird that other avenues to corrections should be a part of the equation. More community corrections, more home detention, more GPS tracking of inmates. Night court sounds like an superb idea.

But we also continue to believe those are nowhere close to the full answer — which is to build a new jail that, as best can be determined in 2014, can meet both current and future needs. We realize there is no crystal ball that will be anywhere close to perfect on those needs. All that can be done is the best that can be done.

Should there be a voter referendum on raising taxes to build a new jail? Bird says so. But did Vigo County conduct a voter referendum when its leaders wanted to spend millions renovating and remodeling its splendid, historic courthouse? No. Would that have passed a referendum? No. Was it worth doing? Yes. Does the Tribune-Star support it? Yes.

Some may view voter referenda as ultimate exercises in democracy. They aren’t. They are governance by avoidance. They are hiding behind the conservatism of voters, who across the country have defeated measures that called for things government sorely needed to provide — new schools, new sanitation projects and new jails.

Councilpersons and commissioners are elected to act in the best interests of their constituents — just as are state and federal representatives and senators. Every issue that involves big expenditures of tax money cannot or should not be taken to a referendum.

Absolutely, Bird and his fellow Vigo County officials should be wise and frugal stewards of our tax money. But they also must determine ways within that context to find the funding to do what is right for the greater good.

And in the context of Vigo County’s Jail, finding a fiscally responsible way to build a new jail is what is right.

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