Opinion: Prescott Criminal Justice Center Warrants Reconsideration

This is an opinion from Donna Michaels, Candidate for the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors District 3.

Yavapai County Supervisors continue to advocate for an increase of 18% plus new construction cost increase in the Yavapai County portion of property owners yearly tax bill to support a $63M ($86M with debt service) dollar expansion of the Prescott Criminal Justice Center. Slated to break ground in September 2020, this fiscally questionable project will supposedly buy us 144 new jail beds in Phase One, and approximately 600 beds at buildout. Additionally, it is important to note that this tax also provides for funds to pay down Arizona’s public safety retirement debt by covering the county’s pension liabilities.

Setting aside the astounding cost, most voters with whom I have spoken favor the diversion program components that were described by Sheriff Mascher to me during our meeting as a “paradigm shift.” The diversion program components are clearly an important change in the operation of the Center. Citizens and law enforcement professionals across the country are recognizing the need for a change in the operation of their justice systems. It is estimated that at least 50% of inmates have a behavioral, drug or mental health problem that would be more effectively remediated by healthcare professionals, rather than jail time. If restoring individuals to productive, working community members is the goal, then incarcerating those in need of mental health and substance abuse treatment is a miscarriage of justice and a poor use of tax dollars.

Here is my first question–Why double down on spending to incarcerate more people when evidence shows that at least half of them should be diverted from jails? With recidivism in Sheriff Mascher’s system already down by 16% according to a recent NAU study, the question becomes even more concerning and profound. Second, the projected cost of $63 million appears to be at least double the standard that cost experts, Marshall and Swift, recommend. According to Marshall and Swift, an average jail center should weigh in at $250.00 psf. An excellent jail center should cost about $330.00 psf. If we budget for the high-end center, the planned 101,000 sf
facility pencils out at $33 million. So, why are residents paying nearly double that at $63 million?

My third question–How about local impact? Prescott residents tell me they do not want the center built without disclosure of the impact may have on the character of their neighborhoods, lifestyle, and home values. They want the County to answer such questions as “Will hardened criminals be transferred from other locations to be housed in Prescott or Camp Verde?”

Personally, I would like to know much more about the decision process behind this proposal. What alternatives were considered to reduce costs? Were there competitive bids? Were there multiple community meetings prior to the TRUTH AND TAXATION HEARINGS? What were the public comments and how have they been addressed? What alternatives were considered to justify and/or reduce costs? Who reviewed the bids and alternatives if there were any? What oversight was there on these matters? Did an independent expert do an analysis of the proposed project and its costs? If so, what does that analysis show? During the time I served my first term on Yavapai
Community College Board of Governors, my fellow trustees and I requested audits to answer our budget and expenditure questions and assuage the concerns of our taxpayers. If elected as Supervisor for District 3, I will request similar oversight.

We need County leaders who encourage independent scrutiny, collaboration, transparency, and full engagement for all stakeholders. An independent oversight jail council (perhaps advisory), jail board or jail district will help to ensure decisions and management of a jail center that reflects the best interests of all Yavapai County residents and inmates.

Yavapai County residents deserve supervisors who advocate for them in good times and bad. With looming unknowns of Covid-19’s economic impact on our communities, we need leaders who will put the financial well-being of Yavapai County first. That means ensuring
taxpayers are kept as financially whole as possible during these challenging times. I propose a moratorium on this project and all capital projects until we, the residents of Yavapai County, have confidence in the processes behind the decisions.