At forum, Justice Matters hears Douglas County Commission candidates’ views on jail, mental health crisis center

At a Wednesday forum, faith group Justice Matters heard the four Douglas County Commission candidates’ views on the issues of the Douglas County Jail, the proposed mental crisis intervention center and the linkage of the two facilities.

Sharing the stage at Abe & Jake’s Landing were 2nd District independent Jesse Brinson Jr.; his opponent, incumbent Democrat Nancy Thellman; and 3rd District candidates Democrat Bassem Chahine and Republican Michelle Derusseau. Providing context to the questions asked were the the recommendations Justice Matters released last week. Among the coalition’s recommendations were the separation of the jail and the crisis center on any funding measure put before voters, no more spending for expansion plans for the jail, moving forward with the crisis center immediately and hiring of consultants from the Vera Institute or Justice Management Institute to help the county identify alternatives to incarceration.

Thellman said she supported the County Commission’s past decision to expand the jail and build the mental health crisis center. Even if the crisis center were built, there would still be people with mental illness whose offenses required their incarceration. They would need to be housed in a therapeutic and humane environment, she said.

As they reviewed overcrowding at the jail, commissioners recognized the need for the crisis center, especially with the state’s cuts to mental health programs and state hospitals, Thellman said. Current commissioners agreed the jail expansion and crisis center could be pursued at the same time and that a case could be made to voters for funding both.

Thellman said, however, the County Commission seated in January would make the decision on how to move forward and on how any ballot question would be presented to voters. When asked to clarify her position on moving forward on the crisis center only, she remained steadfast that as a candidate she could not commit to decisions that would be made by the commission as a whole.

By contrast, Brinson, her opponent in the 2nd District race, said he favored the County Commission separating the jail and the crisis center and moving ahead with the latter. He did add that it was important to ensure that the center opened with effective programs and adequate staffing.

“I’d like to see the building constructed in the most safe and functional way,” he said.

Brinson said the jail expansion should wait until the county has thoroughly studied all alternatives to incarceration. The county should invest in inmate diversion programs and programs that reach at-risk populations first, he said.

He also suggested that the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council hire consultants from the Vera Institute or Justice Management Institute.

Thellman countered that the two consulting groups could add little to the county’s review, which has included nationally criminal justice expert University of Kansas professor Margaret Severson as a consultant. A recognized national expert in pretrial diversion, Alan Beck, was now advising the county on the pretrial diversion program it plans to implement, she said.

Chahine said he supported the jail expansion and the crisis intervention center, but said county voters should have the chance to consider their funding on separate ballot questions. The county should open a crisis center as soon as possible, he said.

Chahine said the review of alternatives to incarceration could move forward in concert with jail renovations. After a tour of the jail, he was convinced there was a need to address “heartbreaking” problems of overcrowding.

“I was so moved,” he said. “The problem needs to be fixed right now.”

His 3rd District opponent Republican Michelle Derusseau declined to take positions on the jail expansion, the timeline for a crisis intervention center or the linkage of the two on a ballot question. As a commissioner, she would make reasoned decisions based on facts and research, she said.

The work of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council could cause the County Commission to reconsider its past conclusions on jail expansion, Derusseau said. A remodel to address the needs of inmates with mental illness whose offenses necessitated their incarceration needed to be considered in association with a crisis center, she said.

She voiced support for the county’s ongoing jail diversion effort through such programs as the Behavior Health Court and home arrest electronic monitoring. Derusseau noted county consultant Beck was cited in Justice Matters’ own report.