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Jail expansion

Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin has a problem. The 30-person-capacity jail in downtown Hays simply doesn't accommodate the number of inmates he deals with on a regular basis. A couple of weeks back, 47 people were booked in the facility. A combination of releases to community corrections and transfers to other counties alleviated the over-crowding -- but Harbin knows that is a temporary solution.

Unfortunately, from the sheriff's perspective, there is nothing temporary about the steady supply of inmates to house. That is why he has clamored for a bigger jail for years.

"I think we're at the point we know what we need," Harbin said in a recent interview with The Hays Daily News. "The funding part is the stumbling block."

With costs ranging anywhere from $1 million to $5 million, the stumbling block is real. To help fashion a logical way over the hurdle, the county is considering hiring a jail consultant to look at the big picture. As the county has identified other needs with hefty price tags such as a new fire station, a new emergency medical services building, the planned move of county offices to the Commerce Bank building downtown and the resulting remodeling of the courthouse -- there is a lot on the county's plate.

When the space needs committee examines the submitted bids for said jail consultant, we would hope members expand their collective view even further. Granted, we're suggesting a more philosophical consideration that might be beyond the committee's jurisdiction, but we believe the conversation must be had.

The proper number of jail spaces in Ellis County, and anywhere else for that matter, is pure supply and demand. Harbin currently has a 30-bed supply; the demand for space regularly exceeds that. If looked at merely from the supply side, it's obvious a bigger facility is needed.

But if the demand side was examined, a different picture could emerge. As a country, the United States is the world leader in incarcerations. Counting both jails and prisons, there are an estimated 2.2 million people behind bars. During the past 30 years, the number of inmates has increased 500 percent.

Crime rates do not explain such a surge, nor do demographics. Policy decisions at the state and federal level are driving the demand. The war on drugs, three-strikes laws and an overabundance of resources dedicated to the reduction of driving under the influence have resulted in record numbers of non-violent citizens behind bars. Costs of incarceration are skyrocketing.

We do not believe building more jails and prisons is the answer. We'll fill every one -- and faster than any of the repressive regimes we refer to as police states.

Ellis County cannot resolve this national issue on its own. But we could become part of a solution. The jail consultant about to be hired could offer suggestions not only to safely house the existing inmate population ­-- but to reduce demand in the future. Focusing on a short-term fix will not give taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net