Jail Study Launches

Long-Term Plan To Eye Overcrowding Solution

Posted: July 3, 2014

HARRISONBURG — Moseley Architects set the stage Wednesday afternoon for about six months of studying solutions and gathering community feedback on how to relieve overcrowding at the Rockingham County Jail.

“No one person can solve it,” said Michael Jones, a jail planner with the firm.

Moseley will conduct two studies for Harrisonburg and county officials to approve and send to the Virginia Department of Corrections by Dec. 31.

Local officials then hope, after a year of planning and review at the state level, the General Assembly will approve construction funds for a facility at a new location in 2016.

But building a new jail is not a guaranteed solution, officials say, and Moseley’s responsibilities include offering alternatives to sending some criminals to jail.

Some of those alternatives, though, would still require some type of construction, and the downtown Harrisonburg jail is landlocked from growing at its existing site.

Moseley’s review process kicked off Wednesday as three company representatives met with community leaders, including judges, Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and other city and county elected officials.

The city and county will pay the firm about $120,000 to study what’s led to overcrowding at the jail, ways to combat it, and site assessments for a new building.

Data collection of jail and area population trends will start next week, Jones said, and the plans should be finished by November.

“This is a very short time frame,” he said, adding that the city of Richmond has been working on a plan for five years.

County Administrator Joe Paxton said that no new, major programs will be in place by the end of the year.

“We want an integrated, long-term plan that addresses the needs of our community,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The jail can hold 315 inmates, but reaches as many as 380 when double bunks are placed in cells and mattresses are put on floors.

Because of the overcrowding, the city and county rent 100 beds at Middle River Regional Jail in Verona, splitting the $1.2 million annual cost.

“It’s not in the county and city’s best interests to continue that long-term,” Paxton said.

Yet local officials are also rendered powerless on some matters that contribute to the problem, he said.

For example, a backlog of cases on Rockingham County court dockets led the General Assembly to approve funds for three new judgeships in the 26th Judicial District this year, but Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed the money.

The 26th District includes Rockingham County and Harrisonburg.

Republican House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, meanwhile, dismissed the Democratic governor’s veto as out of order because it did not conform to the Virginia Constitution or past legal precedent, he said.

That puts the judgeships in limbo.

“It’s a good example of how complicated the system is,” Paxton said.

For its evaluation, Moseley is interested in obtaining feedback from all residents as it moves forward.

Some in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting were just looking for someone’s ear to make sure their input is heard.

“All of us who are taxpayers,” county resident Jim Orndoff said, “we are decision-makers, too.”

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

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