It’s good that county officials are giving the community some time to consider the need to expand the Douglas County Jail. Perhaps having some lead time on this issue will allow officials to consider some creative options for financing the expansion — or perhaps alternative ways to deal with space needs at the jail.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug indicated last week that he would raise the issue of jail expansion at a joint meeting of city, county and school district officials scheduled for Aug. 20. The county had to budget $250,000 for next year to handle the increased population at the Douglas County Jail and cover increased costs to transfer and house local inmates in Johnson County facilities.
Weinaug said the county likely will consider the jail expansion within the next three years. No details have been offered on the possible size of the project or how it might be financed — sales tax, property tax or some other method — but discussing the issue now may allow local officials to work together to ease the impact of the project on local taxpayers.
Another factor that warrants discussion is how the community might better address the issue of jail inmates with mental illness. County officials say that a reduced number of beds at state mental health facilities has moved more people with mental illness into a community setting. At the same time, state funding for community mental health facilities also has declined. That means that many people with mental illness don’t receive the support they need and too many end up in the facility of last resort: the county jail. Sheriff Ken McGovern told the Journal-World last week that 37 percent of people booked into the jail last year self-reported having a mental health issue. Providing enough appropriate facilities for those inmates is a big factor in the need for expanding the jail.
This is a situation where state actions have created a problem that local governments now must solve, but before local taxpayers pour more money into facilities to incarcerate people with mental illness, perhaps we should look at investing in community mental health facilities that might cost less while also offering a better quality of life to the people in question. County officials have tried hard to find the right support resources to keep people with mental illness out of jail, but perhaps more can be done.
Maybe a jail expansion is unavoidable, but officials should at least have the discussion. Many local taxpayers are disappointed that the current proposal for a new city police headquarters hasn’t included any discussion of a cooperative effort between city and county law enforcement. We have a little time to consider the jail expansion. Let’s take advantage of that time to look at some creative options.