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June 6, 2004 - The Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)

The 'Edifice Complex'

Push to Build More Jail Cells Indicative of Larger Problem

By Randall G. Shelden, Special to the Review-Journal (Note: Randall Shelden is Professor of Criminal Justice at UNLV. His web site is:

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I remember as if it was yesterday, all the arguments claiming how desperately we needed an expansion of the Clark County Detention Center. Recall that Clark County voters approved a bond issue a few years ago, after being told by local authorities that they were running out of space at the present jail. I recall hearing the dire warnings, as the man with the deep voice (part of the big ad firm, R & R Advertising) told us that there were too many dangerous criminals on the loose in Las Vegas.

The "obvious" solution was too simply build another 500-bed facility.

(The existing facility was built around 20 years ago or so for the exact same purpose -- to relieve overcrowding at the old facility -- which was built to relieve overcrowding at the previous facility. And guess why that was built?)

The brand new extension was opened in the fall of 2002 and now it is . are you ready for this shocker? ... overcrowded. So says a recent story in the Review-Journal ("Overcrowding is overstated at county jail," May 28). Actually the story line was about a recent report from the Department of Justice, stating that the detention center was the most overcrowded among the 50 largest jails, but that whoever filled out the questionnaire sent to the Justice Department forgot to mention the additional bed space.

Unfortunately, the real story is the mere fact that despite all the hoopla surrounding the bond issues a few years ago, adding more beds did not relieve overcrowding.

Actually, this is not news to me or anyone who has bothered to study the history of prisons and jails. It is part of what I have called the "field of dreams syndrome" -- if you build it, they will come -- and its counterpart, the "edifice complex," the tendency to think that we can solve complex human problems by building "edifices" -- large buildings like courthouses, police stations, prisons, jails, mental institutions, "assisted living" for those elderly one step away from the grave, etc.

We love these edifices. Well, at least politicians do. After all, when they come up for re-election or long after they retire, they can always point to some edifice to indicate their accomplishments while in office. It doesn't matter that the problems these edifices were suppose to solve never went away (they usually get no better, and often get worse).

As of May 27, there were a total of 2,876 prisoners housed in the detention center, which translated to 101 percent capacity. Additionally, there were 145 housed at the Las Vegas Detention Center and another 29 prisoners in "rented beds" at the North Las Vegas Detention Center. That comes to 3,050 prisoners. It is not as if the jail is filled with "dangerous" offenders, for the vast majority are rather petty offenders charged with petty crimes.

For instance, three years ago I reviewed the charges against prisoners housed at the main detention center (before the new annex was built) and I found that those charged with crimes against the person constituted only 7 percent of all cases. These included those charged with simple assault (no one seriously injured, no weapons used, etc.) and these constituted about 60 percent of the all the "violent" crimes. Only 3 percent of all of those detained were charged with murder, rape and robbery.

I doubt very seriously if the citizens of Clark County feel any safer than they did before the new jail annex was added. Yet we are now collectively in debt to the tune of more than $100 million for the new beds, plus we are still paying for the old jail (this does not include yearly operating costs of several million). Not a very good bargain, I would conclude.

When the bond issue that made possible this new jail annex was passed back in 1996, I wrote a commentary for the Review-Journal ("The bond passed ---so what now?," Sept. 29, 1996). I have commented on this issue on many occasions in both major newspapers, plus alternative weeklies such as the Mercury and City Life. Some of my predictions have come true and some have not. I am not alone in my assessments and conclusions, for there are experts all over the world who concur with what I have said. And what I have said was perhaps best summarized in that article I wrote in September of 1996.

I will end this essay by reproducing what I said back then, which was, with a couple of minor changes, as follows:

We have reached the time where our crime-control policies have run into a brick wall. There is nowhere for us to go, or so we are led to believe. We have constructed more prisons and more jails than any other nation in the history of the world. And we have also incarcerated more offenders than any nation in the world; we have executed more offenders than anyone else in the world; we have passed more laws than anyone else in the world, and with the harshest sentences. Yet crime continues and our fear of crime is higher than ever.

Such policies may tell us more about ourselves than anything else. Have we become just as wicked as the offenders we fear the most? Have we become so desperate that we will think nothing of giving into our most horrible instincts? Have we given up asking, "Why?" Why do we have so much crime? Why are so many of our young people using dangerous substances and why are so many of them killing themselves and each other? And why are growing numbers of these young people feeling little hope, with many believing they will not live past the age of 25?

Do we fail to seriously ask such questions because if we search where we need to search for the answers we may find something is terribly wrong with us, with our most basic institutions, our values and our way of life? Do we therefore try to isolate those who break our laws, to place them "out of sight and out of mind"?

Our problems here in Clark County are not much different than elsewhere. Politicians and those in charge of the criminal justice system might be compared to an army in the old West that is holed up in a fort awaiting another Indian attack. Its soldiers sit passively waiting for reinforcements -- more men to man the barricades, more ammunition, more supplies and a stronger fort -- or better yet, another, even larger fort. It is as if those in charge have simply given up and are waiting for the next onslaught of crime to come.

Preliminary FBI figures tell us that the crime rate in America is starting to increase a bit and that, moreover, crime rates in Las Vegas are greater than the national average. People are just as fearful today as they were back in 1996. I have little doubt that in a few years local law enforcement officials and politicians will claim that we need another "edifice" and history will repeat itself.

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