Three of four candidates for the Douglas County Commission agreed at a forum Saturday that conditions at the county jail justify some kind of building program, and the fourth suggested those issues could be addressed through reforms.
The forum at the Lawrence Arts Center was limited to jail and mental health issues — hot-button topics in the two County Commission races. Independent Jesse Brinson Jr. is challenging incumbent Democrat Nancy Thellman in the 2nd District of eastern Lawrence precincts, Baldwin City, Eudora and eastern rural Douglas County. Democrat Bassem Chahine and Republican Michelle Derusseau are running for the 3rd District seat of west Lawrence precincts and western part of the county.
Derusseau and Thellman presented the issues at the jail to be addressed through jail expansion, which Derusseau preferred to call “renovation.” The jail’s lack of a classification pod for newly arrested inmates creates safety issues as violent criminals are housed with low-level inmates, Derusseau said.
More on the candidates
● Read profiles of the candidates, plus their answers to questions about key issues, in the Journal-World's Voter Guide 2016.
There are structural problems related to overall overcrowding as well as the increase of female inmates and those with mental illness, Derusseau and Thellman said. With its 187 beds full, the county is spending in excess of $1 million of year to house from 50 to 70 inmates daily in the jails of other counties, they said.
Not only did that practice separate inmates from loved ones, but the added travel made it more difficult and expensive for defense attorneys to see clients, Thellman said. Moreover, because other counties only accept lower-level offenders, those inmates assigned to out-of-county jails can’t take advantage of the county’s re-entry program designed to help inmates succeed after their release.
“When they are placed out of county, all they do is watch television,” Thellman said.
Derusseau said the county has moral and legal obligations to address overcrowding issues.
“We need to remember, the county has an obligation to maintain an adequate jail,” Derusseau said. “It’s not an option. It’s a legal obligation that has to be met.”
The county’s approach to jail overcrowding isn’t limited to expansion, Thellman said. Among the incarceration alternatives being considered is the Access, Identify and Divert Program, which aims to quickly get into treatment women in trauma situations, veterans and those with mental illness, she said. The county is also expanding the use of electronic monitoring devices in place of incarceration and is introducing a pre-trial diversion program aimed to keep those on diversion or bail from returning to cells because of missed court dates, she said.
Thellman added that the County Commission is funding for 2017 a behavioral court that will get inmates out of jail and into supervised treatment. Formerly referred to as the mental health court, its new name more accurately signifies its availability to those with the dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse, she said.
Chahine said he supported jail renovations after witnessing during a tour four to six female inmates housed in a cell designed for two. He did suggest there would be less need for jail expansion if there was a focus on “restorative justice” in the Douglas County District Courts. The concept would put an emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation of offenders instead of punishment, he said. The concept was the focus of the Lawrence faith coalition Justice Matters' recently released report listing recommended reforms to the county’s criminal justice system.
Brinson also endorsed the restorative justice. He suggested the county could adopt a number of programs that two organizations in the criminal justice field, the Vera Institute and Justice Management Institute, have helped implement in other jurisdictions. Justice Matters recommends the county hire a consultant from one of the institutes to work with the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Among the proposals Brinson endorsed was the hiring of mental health first responders to ride with law enforcement officers making calls involving possible individuals with mental health issues.
He also suggested the county work with school districts to identify and get counseling for those students who have been physically or sexually abused, have parents who are separated, divorced or substance abusers, or have experienced other factors that have shown to put them at risk of future criminal activity.
Before a decision on a crisis center was made, the county needed to ensure the programs it would house would be efficient and effective, Brinson said.
Thellman said she was the first to insist the county address the mental health issues in and out of the criminal justice system when the County Commission first started reviewing the issue of jail overcrowding more than three years ago.
Although she continues to support jail expansion and the crisis center, Thellman said it would be the County Commission seated in January who would decide how a question or questions funding the two facilities would be presented to voters.
Despite his support for jail upgrades and the crisis center, Chahine said the county should not advance a single ballot question on funding the jail project and crisis intervention center. He supported moving ahead with the crisis center immediately.
“There is a mental health crisis in Lawrence and Douglas County,” he said. “As a business owner downtown, I see it every day.”
Derusseau said she had no present position on the linkage question. The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s ongoing review of the county’s criminal justice system since it was formed in March made any position premature, she said. It would be irresponsible to any commitment to anything until the coordinating council produced proposals, she said.
Brinson said linking the two proposals would reinforce the stereotype that those with mental illness were criminals.
“I don’t think they should be linked,” he said. “If elected, I will fight for that.”