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Compromise on new jail project urged

Bob Clark • Guest Columnist | The request to the Haywood County commissioners from the Sheriff’s Department for $15 million to expand the county jail helped create a great opportunity for the commissioners. That opportunity arose when a significant, broad-based and factual public response was made questioning whether some of that money wouldn’t be better spent to help people stay out of jail as well as out of our clogged court system.

The focal points of that response can be summarized thusly:

1. Many of the people who present to the county jail have immediate needs for mental health assistance, often based on long-standing issues as well as recent, acute ones.

2. Many have ongoing substance abuse disorders that need to be addressed and treated.

3. Many have poor skills and/or real barriers to seeking and holding employment; difficulties in navigating the web of local charities and governmental assistance programs; many have no meaningful residence.

Sheriff Greg Christopher has poured his heart and mind into ways to keep the jail population low and to slow the rate of people returning to the jail. He has nurtured volunteerism in the jail and has been a dynamic voice in both the creation and expansion of the Pathways organization. He is a trusted voice in our community.

I don’t need to talk to any of our county commissioners to know that they would prefer not to spend $15 million taxpayer dollars on a jail. I doubt many citizens want their money spent that way as well.  

Boom! We have a situation that cries out for thoughtful discussion and creative thinking that leads to a compromise and it’s right here in front of us, as local as can be. I urge the commissioners and the “mental health first” advocates to recognize that a compromise must be struck and it will take dialogue to do it.

It is also necessary for each side to accept that there will need to be meaningful concessions and that likely, each side will walk away with less than hoped for. That’s how real and lasting deals are made and kept.

I spent 14 years, nine locally, as an assistant district attorney. I spent 10 years as an assistant public defender between stints in Gaston and Buncombe counties. Ten more years as a criminal defense attorney in Waynesville before retiring in 2015.

During those years I heard from and worked with police officers, counselors and therapists, defendants, victims, probation officers and the list goes on. I know the facts are real regarding the composition of jailed people and their mental health issues. I saw that many of my defendants had real struggles to simply find their way in life. Many of their victims had similar struggles.

I’ve seen our court’s probation officers go from literally: “I will be out in front your house at 9 a.m. and we will go find a job” (Gaston County, 1980) to:  “See, my caseload is double, sometimes triple what the national standards say it’s supposed to be.” (probation officer, Waynesville, 2014). That’s the state’s abject failure, but one that impacts us greatly on this issue as well.

There are many tireless, compassionate and knowledgeable people in our county who work hard as employees and/or volunteers. The benefit to all of us from this is tremendous. We have seen many of them give their public reaction to the jail request and they are ready to go to work to help the commissioners to that necessary compromise.

I have been impressed by the reasoned and civil responses from the side of, let’s treat the human needs to keep our jail smaller. I hope the commissioners see that a way forward which gives us the opportunity to create our own compassionate vision based on compromise will do the most public good. It will take face-to-face dialogue, engagement with open, creative minds and a willingness to trust one another. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?  

(Bob Clark practiced law in Haywood County and is now retired. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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