Your turn: Jail expansion proposal spurs questions

The Douglas County Commission is considering expanding our jail.  News reports suggest $20 million to $30 million may be spent to expand the jail from 196 to 336 beds. As representatives of the NAACP-Kansas, Kansas Appleseed, and NAMI-Kansas, we are concerned about this proposal because it will have a large impact on people of color, the justice system and people with mental illnesses. In terms of both tax dollars and the effects on human lives, this is a very serious decision, and we are encouraged to see the commissioners have committed to asking tough questions before making up their minds. Here are the three biggest questions we’ve heard so far in the community:

  1. The crime rate in Douglas County continues to fall. Why do we need to expand our jail?

Crime in Douglas County has fallen steadily over the last decade. In 2003, when the county’s population was 102,603, there were 5,498 crimes reported in Douglas County. In 2013, when the county’s population had grown to 113,372, law enforcement agencies reported 4,345 crimes.

Since crime is falling, why is the number of inmates at our jail rising? To answer that question, we examined the county jail bookings for the past year and were surprised at what we found: Arrests for failure to appear in municipal court for fine-only traffic citations (yes, locking people up for unpaid tickets) accounted for 10.5 percent of all bookings into our jail. Failure to appear in municipal court for other offenses accounted for another 11.2 percent. That is, over 20 percent of all bookings into our jail in the past year were for failure to appear in a court that hears only misdemeanors and city ordinance violations.

By comparison, failure to appear in district court, which hears felonies and misdemeanors, accounted for only 7.3 percent of all bookings, driving under the influence accounted for only 5 percent, and domestic battery accounted for 4.9 percent. All aggravated assaults and batteries combined accounted for less than 1.2 percent. Douglas County rightly points with pride to a per-capita incarceration rate that is low in comparison to other Kansas counties, but the high incarceration rate for minor offenses (largely from municipal court) shows our system still has a long way to go.

We don’t have a crime problem in Douglas County. We do seem to have some serious breakdowns in our criminal justice system. Expanding the jail would likely make those problems worse. With crime this low, if we expand our jail, we will either have to watch a $20 million to $30 million building sit mostly empty, or we’re going to have to fill the facility by locking up even more people for minor crimes.

  1. Douglas County is quickly falling behind our neighboring counties in providing care for people in mental health crises. Why should we spend $20 million to $30 million on a jail instead of a crisis intervention center?

Johnson County and Wyandotte County now have the Rainbow Services, Inc. center to provide sobering beds as well as triage, observation and stabilization services for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Shawnee County offers similar services through the Valeo center. These programs, modeled after San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, have already successfully diverted people away from jails to more appropriate care.

Our county should be a leader in community mental health services, not incarceration.  Twenty million dollars could build a state-of-the-art mental health system in Douglas County. Money that we spend building and running an expanded jail is money that we aren’t spending on community mental health services.

  1. Douglas County incarcerates people of color at a far higher rate than even the national average. Who pays the price for this jail expansion?

America today incarcerates more people than any other nation in the history of the world. A recent exhaustive report by the National Academy of Sciences documents the deep damage this mass incarceration has done to our society — to our families, to our economy, to our physical health and mental health and to our communities. Minorities, low-income families, and people with mental illnesses have paid a disproportionately high price.

As bad as the national mass incarceration rates are (nationally, 36 percent of the inmate population is black, even though only 13 percent of the general population is black), the Douglas County numbers are worse. About 25 percent of the people incarcerated in our jail are black, even though only 4.4 percent of our county population is black.

In the conversation about the tens of millions of dollars it will cost to build a bigger jail and all of the extra money it will cost to run it, we hope Douglas County doesn’t lose sight of the human costs of this proposal – costs paid disproportionately by excluded, vulnerable or less powerful families.