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Miami-Dade Moving Forward With Plans For A New Jail Complex

jail_door.jpeg
Miami Herald File

Bidding for the construction of the new complex is expected to start next month.

Plans to build a new jail complex in Miami-Dade County, to the tune of more than $400 million, continue to move forward — despite objections from activist groups.

The bidding process for constructing the new complex is expected to start as soon as January, the Miami-Dade mayor’s office told WLRN. A final vote for the project is expected to come before the Miami-Dade County commission in the spring.

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The new development is being supported by newly elected Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who ran on a platform of social justice and police reform. Levine Cava was critical of building a new jail complex but voted for advancing those plans in October, when she was a county commissioner.

“The community that we serve, we want it to be a safe place and from time to time we need to make investments to ensure that comes about. The mayor is not closed to innovative and resourceful approaches to making it safer,” said J.D. Patterson, the county’s public safety director, who was appointed by Levine Cava in November.

Patterson oversees the county’s jail system, in addition to the Miami-Dade Police Department, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, and the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

Even though the price tag is high, the county expects that the new complex would save money in the long term, since it costs more to operate older facilities.

The new jail would replace the Pretrial Detention Center near downtown Miami, also known as Dade County Jail, or DCJ. The facility was built in 1961.

The county has been under a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice since 2013, mandating that it improve conditions in its jails, in particular the Pretrial Detention Center. The Department of Justice described the jail in 2011 as having “structural deficiencies, such as cracked concrete and rusting metal,” which made it “difficult, if not impossible, to adequately clean.”

The county has met most of the requirements under the federal consent decree, but the facility continues to age.

“It’s time for upgrades to make sure we provide better services to our community,” Patterson said.

The new complex would also include a mental health treatment center, courtrooms, a medical clinic, and office space for prosecutors and public defenders.

The site of the new facility will be next to Metro West Detention Center in West Miami-Dade.

Activists have voiced strong opposition to building the new complex. More property tax money is spent on the county’s jail system than the public hospital system, parks, libraries and other social services combined.

Concerns about spending priorities were exacerbated during the anti-police brutality protests that took place over the summer, following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Dozens of medical students, physicians and scientists wrote a letter to the Miami-Dade commission in July asking them not to move ahead with the plans.

"This money is better spent on improving our communities and not exacerbating the racist systems of incarceration in this country," the letter reads. "Black and Brown people are more likely to be incarcerated compared to white people, and this has been consistently related to worse health outcomes overall."

The jail population in Miami-Dade County has gone down significantly over the last decade, in large part due to programs that divert people with mental health problems away from the criminal justice system and pre-trial diversion programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further led to decreasing numbers, as police, prosecutors and the court system have collaborated to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus within the jail system.

Patterson said despite plans for the new jail facility, the county government — under Mayor Levine Cava — will build upon those reforms and that a new jail does not mean an increased jail population.

“I think we’re expecting to reduce some of the incarceration rates as we go forward,” he said.