2nd District Douglas County Commission candidates split on jail expansion, crisis center

The Douglas County commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the old county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

At a candidate forum in Eudora, candidates for the 2nd District Douglas County Commission seat shared different views on the expansion of the Douglas County Jail and that project’s link to a proposed mental health crisis intervention center.

Incumbent Democrat Nancy Thellman and independent challenger Jesse Brinson participated in a forum Wednesday at Eudora Middle School, along with two incumbents running unopposed, District Attorney Charles Branson and Sheriff Ken McGovern. The forum was organized by Game On for Kansas Schools, the Eudora Chamber of Commerce and the Eudora Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The Douglas County Commission’s 2nd District represents eastern Lawrence precincts and the eastern part of the county, including Baldwin City and Eudora.

Brinson spoke repeatedly during the evening of the importance of listening to constituents on the jail expansion issue. He questioned the idea of linking a ballot question on the expansion with the construction of a mental health crisis intervention center, and said many 2nd District residents he had spoken to were also skeptical.

“The crime rate has rate has decreased significantly,” he said. “People are seeking alternatives on that jail expansion.”

Brinson said he would like to see more review of alternatives to incarceration, including studying the city of Topeka’s partnership with Valeo Behavior Health Care to reduce incarceration rates of those with mental health issues in that community.

As for improving mental health services, Brinson said if elected he would visit with mental health professionals to learn their views. He suggested that the county invest more in mental health personnel and services, including mental health first responders to accompany law enforcement officers on certain types of calls.

Thellman, who is seeking her third term, defended the commission’s position on coupling the jail and crisis intervention center on the ballot. She said the position was developed after a three-year review of jail overcrowding and mental health concerns, which included a tour of Valeo in Topeka as well as other mental health facilities in Kentucky, Texas and Washington, D.C.

The early design for the crisis intervention center reflects that review of best practices, Thellman said. It includes a detox center, a peer counseling area and other elements meant to help those in crisis recover, she said.

Bookings into the Douglas County Jail have remained steady, Thellman said, adding the facility has other issues stemming from changes in its population since it opened about 20 years ago. The number of inmates with mental health issues has significantly increased, while the jail’s female population, which hovered between six and nine inmates when the jail opened, has risen to as many as 40, she said.

Cuts to district courts have dragged out the time needed to adjudicate criminal cases, and state sentencing mandates have lengthened inmate stays, Thellman said. As a consequence, she said, the jail is beyond its 186-inmate capacity, and the county is budgeting $1 million to house more than 50 inmates in other counties.

“We send inmates to other jails far from family and the services they need,” she said, noting that the jail’s nationally recognized re-entry program that prepares inmates for life after incarceration is not available to inmates housed in other counties.

Thellman said another priority for a third term would be continued support for the county’s sustainability program. She successfully lobbied for the hiring of a sustainability coordinator when she first joined the County Commission eight years ago, she said.

Brinson also said he would advocate for an outreach program that would monitor students with low standardized test scores, which he said often reflect problems in children’s home lives such as physical abuse, substance abuse and parental separation.

“We need to take time with kids in school where they are to help them keep out of jail and become productive,” he said.