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Lawrence County Jail_01

The 50-year-old Lawrence County Jail no longer meets state standards for the number of prisoners it houses.

The Lawrence County Board of Commissioners has found another site for its proposed new jail. That should satisfy neighbors of the former preferred site, but the commission still must sell voters on its plan to pay for the new $32 million jail.

At its meeting this week, the three commissioners said the former cement plant site just outside Ironton city limits, along Adams Lane/County Road 24, is now their preferred site. They were reacting to concerns of residents near the former Open Door School along Lorain Street near the city’s southern end.

A new jail would replace the existing 50-year-old jail on South 5th Street across from the Lawrence County Courthouse in downtown Ironton. That jail was built to hold 52 prisoners, but current space requirements recommend only 27 prisoners be housed there.

The county currently houses 55 or more prisoners at the jail and houses several dozen more at other Ohio jails. The county also released several dozen more on signature bonds while a case is pending.

The state of Ohio has agreed to pay $16.8 million toward the cost of a new 200-bed jail, but the county must come up with the other half. To do that, the commission has placed an increase in the county sales tax on the May 3 primary election ballot. The increase would add another half percent to the tax, bringing it to 7.75%, which is the same as what most counties in southern Ohio charge.

Lawrence County needs a newer, larger jail that can handle the number of people awaiting trial while meeting modern standards for detention facilities. The problem has been a long time in coming, and it has become critical just as inflation is driving up building costs and as the voting public is dealing with higher prices on almost everything it buys.

The Lawrence County jail was built in an era of different standards for incarcerating people awaiting trial or convicted of crimes. Lawrence County’s jail troubles are similar to those faced by other counties in southern Ohio. Voters in neighboring Gallia County approved a sales tax increase to help pay for a new jail, which is under construction.

A new jail would ease the existing problem of overcrowding, but other solutions are needed for the long term so the new jail does not have the same problems a decade or two from now.

Unlike West Virginia and its state-run regional jail system, Ohio is sticking with its county jails. That’s no surprise, as Ohio is more committed to local control than West Virginia is.

The average Lawrence County voter probably doesn’t know much about the workings of the county jail and the drain it is on the commission’s budget. The commission needs to deliver a hard sell — and an effective one — if it wants this tax increase to pass.

How Lawrence County voters respond to the proposed sales tax increase could be an indicator of how voters will approach candidates and issues in November.

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