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America is in the midst of a jail construction boom.

Although less than a third of Americans rate building jails and prisons as a priority for their tax dollars, communities across the country—especially in smaller cities and towns—are building newer, and bigger, jails.Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, “The Evolving Landscape of Crime and Incarceration,” April 19, 2018

In North Carolina, four counties have approved or budgeted for four new or expanded jail facilities.Ben Coley, “County Picks Courthouse Option,” The Dispatch, June 26, 2018; Emily Willis, “$50 Million Plans Include New Park, Expanded Jail for Catawba County,” Hickoryrecord.com, April 25, 2018; DeJuan Hoggard, “Family Flap After Land Quietly Sold for New Orange County jail,” WTVD, April 4, 2018; and Staff report, “Building Momentum: Iredell County Projects ‘On Schedule and Within Budget’,” Mooresville Tribune, March 29, 2018. In Colorado, two new jail projects were approved in 2018 and proposals solicited from contractors for two more.Gary Harmon, “Design Work Begins on Jail Expansion,” Daily Sentinel, May 18, 2018; Trevor Reid, “Roche Constructors to Build 3-Story Addition to Weld County Jail,” Greeley Tribune, April 18, 2018; John Scarffe, “Burn Permit Updates Approved,” The Mountain Ear, February 15, 2018; and Hans Peter, “Larimer County Jail Population Swells with Seasonal Phenomenon,” Reporter-Herald, June 11, 2018. And voters from Clatsop County, Oregon, to Rockwall County, Texas, approved bonds for jail expansion or construction on their ballots in November.Ballot Measure 4-195, Clatsop County Oregon; and “Jail Renovation Bond Information,” Rockwall County Texas. New construction is a costly response to overcrowded jails in places like Madison County, Tennessee, where the county jail was built to house 303 people, but held a total of 401 at the end of August.Brandon Shields, “Schools vs. Jail: Not a Choice, Commissioners Say,” Jackson Sun, October 3, 2018; and Cassandra Stephenson, “More Inmates than Beds in Madison County Jail,” Jackson Sun, September 5, 2018. As a result, the county is currently planning a $30 million jail expansion project.Brandon Shields, “Schools vs. Jail: Not a Choice, Commissioners Say,” Jackson Sun, October 3, 2018. And where jail facilities aren’t expanding, jail budgets are: after a 2016 bond measure to fund expansion failed in Saguache County, Colorado, voters approved a 1.5 percent sales tax increase to upgrade equipment and train personnel at the county jail.Teresa Benns, “Saguache County Sheriff’s Office Explains Sales Tax,” Valley Courier, September 29, 2018; and Saguache County Election Results, Saguache County Ballot Issue 1A (Saguache County Clerk’s Office, November 2018). Saguache County Sheriff’s Office Jail Commander Ken Wilson called the measure a “band-aid” fix until a new jail could be funded.Benns, “Saguache County Sales Tax,” 2018.

Administrators and legislators often believe that new facilities are necessary because current jails are aging and often overcrowded or are designed in such a way that they do not have the capacity to allow for programming, classes, or services such as medical care or drug treatment.For example, the Hamilton County, Ohio, construction project will add 92 beds specifically slated for incarcerated people being treated for substance use disorders. Terry DeMio, “Hamilton Co. Jail to Get Retrofit, Add Beds for Addicted Inmates with $2.5 Million Grant,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 2018. Critics, however, point out that the construction of new jails comes at the cost of community-based resources like mental health services, drug treatment, or youth programs, which could keep people out of jail entirely, reducing or even eliminating the need for more beds.Aallyah Wright, “County Eyes Slashing Youth Program, Other Services, To Pay for New Jail,” Mississippi Today, August 23, 2018. In Douglas County, Kansas, voters rejected a tax increase to fund a behavioral health campus and related services because the measure was bundled with a $44 million addition to the county jail. In November, however, a revised proposal that cut out the jail expansion and included only the behavioral health projects passed with overwhelming support.2018 Midterm Election Results: Watkins Separates from Davis; Kelly Keeps Commanding Lead over Kobach,” Lawrence Journal-World, November 6, 2018; and Elvyn Jones, “Voters Guide: Proposition 1 Seeks Nearly $5 Million in Sales Taxes for Mental Health Programs,” Lawrence Journal-World, October 28, 2018. Hamilton County, Ohio, is adding 92 beds as “treatment pods” in its existing county jail, to be used to expand substance use programs for men and women.Terry DiMio, “Hamilton Co. Jail to Get Retrofit, Add Beds for Addicted Inmates with $2.5 Million Grant,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 2018; and Bill Rinehart, “Justice Center to Expand Treatment Program for Addicted Inmates," WXVU.org, August 16, 2018.

Even where jails aren’t locally funded, construction often comes at the expense of other programs: this past summer, the Trump administration increased U.S. Department of Agriculture investment in jail construction via a program originally intended to finance rural infrastructure like hospitals, fire stations, and community centers.Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown, “Farm Aid for the Big House,” Vera Institute of Justice, November 2018. In 2018, the department slated $75 million from the program—more than double what it spent on jails in 2017—on projects in Greene County, New York, and Baker County, Florida.Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown, “Farm Aid for the Big House,” Vera Institute of Justice, November 2018.