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Jail or else?

Sep 9, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Fremont County is wise to consider expanding justice options for young and non-violent offenders

Fremont County is taking its latest step in alternative justice measures intended to keep marginal offenders from going to jail or losing school privileges.

County commissioners toured a suggested site for a larger facility called a juvenile day reporting center this week in Riverton. If adopted, the bigger building would permit expansion of a program that offers juvenile offenders alternatives to school expulsion, or, worse, incarceration in the juvenile wing of the Fremont County Detention Center in Lander.

The jail's juvenile wing itself is an improvement over the previous detention setup. The county moved some time ago to segregate under-age offenders from the adult jail population, and it continues to seek alternatives to incarcerating juveniles in the first place.

The same goes for alcohol offenders whose only crime is being intoxicated. The development of the alcohol treatment center by the county means that many intoxicated individuals who formerly would be put in jail can instead go to "detox" and sober up without being booked as criminals.

Fremont County could never be accused successfully of being anti-law and order. Getting tough and staying tough on crime is part of our community makeup. But many experts on law and order who think about the topic at a level beyond the bumper sticker note that putting people in jail isn't such a great thing to do if there are alternatives within the law.

Obviously, some offenders must be incarcerated both as punishment and for the protection of society. But others can be housed safely someplace other than the primary jail without compromising public safety while still being afforded a better chance of recovery, rehabilitation and redemption than they probably would idling behind bars in the county lockup.

There's more to this than well-intentioned social work. Operating a full-security detention center is necessary but expensive. It takes highly trained manpower, and lots of it. It requires sophisticated structures and equipment. It is subject to strict governmental rules and regulations, and scrutinized heavily by civil liberties organizations willing to bring trouble to the jail's doorstep if something goes wrong.

And the more prisoners the jail has, the more money it costs to run it.

In theory, then, the county jail or, for that matter the state penitentiary, would be used to house people for whom no reasonable alternative to high-security incarceration is feasible. Many offenders fall outside that definition, and both government and society are realizing it.

By creating and using alternatives to straightforward jailing, we can do a lot of good for the community across the spectrum of benefits. Those benefits begin with saving money, and they continue through more humane, safe, sensible and potentially positive treatment and outcomes for non-violent or under-age offenders.

Having the fullest possible slate of detention options is one sign of a responsive and well-developed local government, backed by a voter constituency that can envision detention options in a more sophisticated way.

No detention program is perfect, and ourm local versions are not without their critics. Fremont County might or might not opt to develop the specific building they toured this week into a bigger juvenile day reporting center. But the fact that county leaders are thinking about doing it at all is, on balance, a positive development with strong potential for success.

Fremont County is as law-and-order as anywhere else. But we are learning that there is more to effective law and order than simply locking people up.

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