Our Voice: New jail solves problem; if it makes money, that's nice

Franklin County's new jail is under construction.

The $18 million addition more than doubles the capacity of the existing facility.

A larger jail was definitely needed. The expansion is the product of a long-running campaign by county officials who said their jail has been overcrowded for too long. With 154 beds, the jail has an average of 180 inmates. At its peak, the jail had 239 occupants at one time.

While we all know that jail is intended to be punishment, there are rules that govern humane treatment of inmates and that type of overcrowding does not cut it.

Officials were concerned that legal action would be taken if the jail was not improved. And they said public safety was at stake, as the county continues to grow -- along with gang problems and the number of incarcerated.

Voters finally came to the plate with the approval of a public safety sales tax in 2011. In addition to the jail expansion, the 0.3 percent sales tax increase for 30 years will pay for a two-story building to include the sheriff's office, dispatch center, information services and Pasco Municipal Court.

The county receives 60 percent of the revenue, and the remaining 40 percent is divided among Franklin County cities based on population. That allows Pasco to pick up the cost of the municipal court space and help with construction costs for shared areas.

The existing jail will be fully remodeled inside with cells that will hold maximum-security inmates with one per cell. More holding cells and video visitation will be added as well.

The new jail will be for minimum- and medium-security inmates, with four sharing each cell. Both will be on 24-hour lockdown, allowing only one hour per day outside their cells.

In all, the revamped jail will have 334 beds. That's almost double the number of existing beds and almost 100 more than have ever been crammed into the old jail on its busiest day, leaving some to wonder if the facility has been overbuilt.

Law enforcement officials will tell you they're planning ahead, building a facility meant to handle a fast-growing population and the problems that come with it.

In the meantime, jail officials plan to let it be known that they've got room if other jurisdictions would like to pay to house inmates there when the facility opens next spring.

That's a potentially lucrative stream of revenue, but also one that can just as quickly dry up with budget cuts and terminated contracts, as we've seen happen in Benton County.

Franklin County could charge about $58 per day per contract inmate. The U.S. Marshals Office already has been in touch about the possibility of housing federal inmates. And officials are hoping others will follow suit.

The concept of contract inmates wasn't even a possibility in the old facility, but it is fairly common practice in larger jails with a consistent number of open beds. And it could help with the bottom line in a county that has been hit hard financially in recent years. But the first priority will be to make sure there is room for Franklin County offenders.

A final decision on contract inmates will not be made until the project is done. But it serves the county well to explore the possibility and be ready for it if the time and circumstances are right.

It's hard to turn away revenue in these challenging times for county governments, and as long as officials realize it may only be a short-term profit stream, it seems worth considering.