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Alternatives to jail

Does Hillsborough County need a new $41-million jail? Perhaps not, according to a study commissioned by the county.

That is good news to residents of Brandon, who are opposed to a new jail planned near Falkenburg Road. It is better news for Hillsborough County commissioners who don't have the money to build and staff a new jail. The report, by the Institute for Law and Policy Planning in Berkeley, Calif., cost the county $75,000.

"That $75,000 could wind up saving the county millions," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ed Turanchik, who pushed for the study after an earlier study, done by an architectural firm, said a new jail was needed quickly.

Turanchik hopes that jail alternatives _ such as drug and alcohol treatment, release of more non-violent inmates, faster processing of convicted felons to state prisons and special monitoring devices for certain prisoners _ will allow the county to handle its jail population for at least the rest of this decade.

Jails are expensive to build and more expensive to maintain. A temporary jail facility, currently under construction at the Falkenburg Road site, will cost taxpayers $2-million to build and $5-million a year to operate. That money might be better spent on drug and alcohol treatment, because most inmates are addicts or serious substance abusers, and on job training, because the study found that most of the prisoners coming into the county jail were unemployed at the time of their arrest.

Public opinion polls generally show support for more jails. In reality, though, few communities want jails in their backyards, and taxpayers are seldom willing to pay more taxes to build and maintain new jails. Plus, studies of crime and jail populations indicate almost no link between more jail beds and less crime in a community.

Hillsborough County jails have faced an overcrowding problem in the past and steps need to be taken to keep the jail population under control. The newly reformed Public Safety Council, which brings together criminal justice and local government officials, is looking at ways the different parts of the criminal justice system can work together to keep that population down.

Eventually, Hillsborough County will need more jail space to meet the demands of an increasing population. But according to this study, that day has not arrived. Until it does, Hillsborough County would be wise to spend its money on other things.

Correction

A Tuesday editorial on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg incorrectly described a military policy she successfully challenged as a lawyer. The policy gave automatic dependent status to the wives of military men but not to the husbands of military women.

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