Canyon County needs 1,055 jail beds to solve chronic overcrowding issues and accommodate the next 20 years of growth, a new study concludes.
County commissioners heard a three-hour presentation Thursday afternoon on the results of the examination of what an appropriately sized jail would look like and cost. The DLR Group, an independent consulting firm, performed the review.
Its estimated cost of a new jail of that size: $198 million for total project construction. DLR proposed a building covering 298,405 square feet, which it said would meet national and state jail standards. The space includes an estimate that 20 percent of jail beds should be vacant on any average day to leave space for new daily arrests.
A rough, preliminary estimate puts the cost of a 20-year bond at $132 a year in property taxes per $100,000 of taxable property value, said Canyon County Controller Zach Wagoner. His estimate included a 5 percent interest rate, requiring an annual payment of $16 million.
Three prior bonds related to jail costs in Canyon County have failed to get approval from voters. None of them were for this high of a dollar amount.
Overcrowding has driven efforts to find Canyon County more jail space for years. The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho has sued the county in the past, resulting in settlements that have remedied the ACLU’s complaints but have not solved the greater problem.
The issue is also a lead cause of years of acrimony among county officials. County Commissioner Steve Rule did not attend the Thursday meeting. County spokesman Joe Decker said after the meeting that Rule chose not to attend “because he didn’t support the $250,000 study by the DLR Group to tell us we need more jail space. He said the question is not if we need more jail space, but how do we fund any new construction of jail space.”
The Canyon County Jail currently has 477 beds, including a minimum-security tent facility that accounts for 122. The tent facility has seen nine inmate escapes since December 2015 as a result of the low security and its canvas walls.
DLR’s study found that under existing circumstances and demands, the jail should actually have 779 beds right now in order to allow Canyon County to have 20 percent free space. Under its estimates, the county on Thursday was already 300 beds shorter than what’s needed.
Canyon County has been paying to place about 40 inmates every day in other jails due to space problems. Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue noted that more than 600 people charged with crimes are also out of jail awaiting trial. He believes about 255 of those should likely be in the jail, but there wasn’t room.
The DLR Group based its estimates on the county using vacant property it already owns outside of Caldwell, off of U.S. 20/26.
Its design also provides room for administration, reception, staff, operations, medical services, jail intake services, food service, laundry, recreation, work release space and parking. The outdoor recreation area would have a covering to prevent escapes from the yard. The plan would leave some open space on the property so that in the future, the county could add on to the new jail.
County Commissioner Tom Dale said during the meeting that he hopes that the discussion moving forward will be as transparent as possible, engaging taxpayers and stakeholders. He compared the need for a new jail to the need for more money to repair roads in Canyon County, saying citizens would easily support the latter.
“We do not have an option to do nothing about the jail,” Dale said. “Status quo is not acceptable.”
Commissioner Pam White said she was concerned about public safety with the current situation at the jail, calling it a “crisis.”
“We have got to find a solution and I believe that we together can do this,” White said.
She said she doesn’t want to gamble with the lives of residents when it comes to escape possibilities.
“If it’s not this funding mechanism, then how are we going to do it?” White said about the bond. “If it’s not this, the situation is getting worse the longer we wait.”