Editorial: Avoid expansion

Douglas County Commissioners should exhaust all options before spending $30M to expand the jail.

Douglas County’s plan to expand the county’s jail should be an option of last resort.

Last January, Treanor Architects shared preliminary footprints and conceptual renderings for an estimated $30 million building project that would add 120 beds to the existing 186-bed facility that opened in 2000. County commissioners originally wanted to put a referendum before voters in 2016 to expand the jail and build a Mental Health Crisis Intervention Center.

However, the County Commission decided in April that a November referendum would not give the newly created Criminal Justice Coordinating Council time to review the county’s criminal justice system for alternatives that could affect the size of the jail expansion or perhaps eliminate the need for it altogether.

County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who represents the County Commission on the coordinating council, said he expects the jail expansion project to come before voters in 2017. Gaughan said he believes the jail expansion is necessary.

“I would say this in an issue we’ve been working with the sheriff and the team out at the county jail for three years now,” he said. “Part and parcel with that is the continued work of the coordinating council to see what new initiatives we can take to divert away from the jail. That’s where the coordinating council comes into play, so that we have a justice system in Douglas County that our citizens can be proud of.”

But any jail expansion plans could — and should — face an uphill battle from voters. Jail expansion historically has proven to be an expensive and inefficient approach to crowded jails.

Justice Matters, an interfaith nonprofit organization made up of Lawrence church congregations, is opposed to the jail expansion and has called for spending on jail planning to end. An informal group, Douglas County for Jail Alternatives, is calling for a complete data-driven review of alternatives to jail expansion.

Opponents to jail expansion make a compelling case. Expansion is a simplistic and expensive answer to a complex problem. Before Douglas County spends $30 million to add more jail beds, it’s reasonable for county voters to ask: Is there a better way, a way that costs less and provides those in the justice system with alternatives, such as education and treatment, that better serve the individual and the community?