In the next six weeks, an 11-member task force must make some hard decisions about how Anne Arundel County should deal with a growing inmate population at its jail. This is the time to throw out the old assumptions and arguments and take a fresh look at all the possibilities.
To do that, the task force must take care not to be influenced by either County Executive Robert R. Neall, who stands by his original plan to build an $80 million, 650-bed jail near Glen Burnie, or by area residents, who remain dead set against it. Though the Glen Burnie site is still an option, the whole purpose of the task force is to let representatives from across the county evaluate all the choices -- as they should have in the first place.
Mr. Neall erred last winter when, based on a consultant's recommendation, he quietly chose a former Army depot near Glen Burnie as a jail site without soliciting public opinion. He didn't understand that with an issue as unpopular as a jail, people want the opportunity to weigh the alternatives themselves. This is that opportunity.
What kinds of issues should the task force consider between now and Oct. 15, when it presents its recommendations to Mr. Neall?
First, it must consider whether a large, medium-security facility such as the one the executive proposes is the best solution. The county surely needs more jail space. But is it possible to avoid construction of a new jail by greater use of alternative methods of sentencing, such as home detention, combined with an addition to the existing facility near Annapolis? What about building a new minimum-security detention center for minor offenders and keeping more serious prisoners where they are? Or a minimum-security facility for low-risk prisoners nearing the end of their term? The county has explored these options superficially, if at all.
Perhaps a full-fledged jail is the best answer. In that case, the task force faces the difficult question of where to build it. Most residents would like prisons relegated to some remote, rural area, but that is not always possible nor even preferable. To function well, jails must have access to things not often found in unpopulated regions: courts and major roadways, utilities, hospitals, employment for prisoners on work release programs.
Beyond that, there is a subtle danger in isolating jails. It makes it too easy to adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude.
Of course, that will not matter to whatever neighborhood may be chosen as a jail site. No one ever wants a jail nearby. But the task force must realize that the feelings of communities are just one factor in a debate that ought to be decided on the basis of what will work best for all the public. The easiest solution may not necessarily be the best solution.