What to do about extreme overcrowding at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail?
Leaders from the two localities this week took an initial step toward applying for state funding to help build a new jail, over the objection of many who crowded public meetings this week to oppose the idea. At the same time, most people on both sides remain in broad agreement that it’s time for new ideas in the local criminal justice system. WMRA's Andrew Jenner has the story.
The Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors voted this week to send plans to the state to build a $63 million new jail to complement the existing one in downtown Harrisonburg. That’s a first step toward possibly receiving state funding to cover about half that construction cost. Since it began this summer, the jail planning process has been controversial, and led many to lobby for investment in alternatives to incarceration rather than more jail cells.
TOM DOMONOSKE: I’m here to ask you to fund a restorative justice program. Restorative justice focuses first on the victim of a crime, and then it focuses on the offender to ensure the offender understands what happened, doesn’t reoffend, and that in the process, there’s a healing of the community. Done properly, it’s effective, and it’s cheaper than a jail. Thank you.
That was Harrisonburg resident Tom Domonoske, speaking at the city council meeting attended by a standing-room-only crowd. Members of the council and board of supervisors, which both voted 4-1 to forward plans to the state, repeatedly emphasized that this was simply a procedural step that puts the localities in line for state funding if they eventually decide to build a new jail – which many of them say they hope to avoid. Here’s Harrisonburg City Councilman Richard Baugh:
BAUGH: To the extent that we don’t know if our existing criminal justice system reflects our values, we need to find out. To the extent it does not reflect our values, we need to take action. I’m actually confident that the jail issue will get resolved in due course to the satisfaction of most in the community.
At the earliest, the localities wouldn’t actually commit money toward new jail construction until the middle of 2016. Between now and then, elected officials say, there’s time to study and implement alternatives like drug courts or electronic home monitoring that could affect if and how that state money would be spent. The local governments also voted this week to fund an 18-month pilot project to improve mental healthcare in the current jail, which will begin next year.