Douglas County Commission makes official decision to jointly move forward with jail, mental health initiatives

Douglas County Jail

The Douglas County Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to combine initiatives to expand the Douglas County Jail, build a mental health crisis intervention center and create a mental health court.

The action was taken at the end of the County Commission’s weekly meeting. However, Commission Chairman Jim Flory suggested commissioners make formal an intent to move forward jointly on the three initiatives at the beginning of an earlier work session on the three topics.

Flory noted some have called for the commission to separate the jail expansion and crisis intervention center, which commissioners have viewed as interconnected since they started considering the jail needs in August 2014. He took umbrage at the suggestions commissioners “hijacked” the process to build the crisis intervention center to expand the jail or that it was holding the crisis center “hostage” to voters approving the jail expansion, as was suggested last month at a town hall meeting.

“It infuriates me when this commission initiated the whole project,” he said. “I’ll tell you straight out, this got started because of the current county commission and the sheriff.”

Flory also proposed the County Commission establish a timeline to put what would probably be a bond referendum to finance the jail expansion and crisis intervention center before voters on the November general election ballot. Although commissioners didn’t make that formal, they did direct staff to come back in two or three weeks with a draft timeline that would attempt to realize that goal.

Among the issues that would need to be resolved was the mechanism to finance the estimated $30 million jail expansion and construction of a $6 million to $10 million crisis intervention center. County Administrator Craig Weinaug was also asked to develop numbers of additional county personnel needed to staff the jail expansion, crisis intervention center and mental health court.

Commissioners also agreed to place on their March 2 agenda the creation of a Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Commissioner Mike Gaughan said the council would have members from the entities and agencies at the table with commissioners at Wednesday’s work session. Those were Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the District Court and the District Attorney’s Office, plus representatives. There also would be representatives from the city of Lawrence, the Lawrence Police Department and law enforcement agencies in the county, he said.

A similar Johnson County body offers a model for its activities, Gaughan said. That group’s mission is to coordinate efforts to identify alternatives to incarceration, spot strengths and weaknesses, boost collaboration and sharing of resources, promote proven strategies to reduce recidivism, address causes of crime, and work to maintain public safety.

Gaughan said the coordinating council would require some staff support, especially with what would be one of its key tasks of gathering and collating data from the different agencies.

The group would play a key role in the county’s efforts to improve its criminal justice system and mental health services, which would continue even with voter approval of the jail expansion and crisis intervention center, Flory said.

?”I don’t think we will ever stop looking at new and better ways to improve the jail situation,” he said.

In part because of the planned creation of the coordinating council, commissioners rejected a call to hire another consultant to provide recommendations for how to address jail and mental health concerns.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said some member of Justice Matters were calling for the County Commission to engage another consultant because they viewed consultant Margaret Severson as someone with a history of advocating larger jails.

When asked to respond, Severson, a Kansas University professor of social welfare, said she had only recommended jail expansions twice during a more than 30-year consulting career in which she has provided recommendations for more than 200 jails.

With most of Wednesday’s discussion centering on the jail expansion, commissioners agreed to have another work session in the coming weeks on the crisis intervention center.