Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority

Commissioner rebukes Justice Matters for 'misrepresentations'

Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern, right, presents a presentation on the proposed Douglas County Jail expansion at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting. At left is Corrections Undersheriff Gary Bunting.

Sheriff Ken McGovern told the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday that decisions on the proposed jail expansion should be made a priority because of the stress of the current overcrowding on staff and inmates and the increasing difficulty of placing excess inmates in the jails of other counties.

During the presentation he made with Corrections Undersheriff Gary Bunting, McGovern highlighted the reform measures his staff and the county have taken over the past 16 years to reduce the county’s incarceration rate, but nonetheless concluded all current and planned efforts would not reduce the jail’s population enough to avoid the need to add more beds to the jail, a project that would require county voters to approve a bond issue. The sheriff also presented data indicating that past plans to expand the county jail needed to be tweaked.

The meeting also included comments from members of the faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters, followed by a sharp rebuke from Commissioner Michelle Derusseau denouncing what she said was the misrepresentation of county officials at the group’s March 30 Nehemiah Action Assembly.

During his presentation, McGovern said the success of the county’s reform efforts since 2001 was revealed in its current incarceration rate of 1.9 people per 1,000 county residents. That compared to figures of 4.4 in Shawnee County, 3.24 in the state and 3.37 nationwide, he said.

Helping the county realize that low rate were a host of initiatives that started with the decision of the sheriff’s office in 2001 to place two Bert Nash Community Mental Health employees at the jail to work with inmates, McGovern said. The effort continued with the implementation of the jail’s re-entry program in 2007 and added screening for a pretrial release element to that program in 2014, he said. Among recent efforts were the grant-funded hiring in January 2016 of Bert Nash case managers for the Assess, Identify and Divert program for veterans and women inmates and those with severe mental illness, the Douglas County District Court’s Behavior Health Court started this year and the pretrial release program now being put in place that will open alternative placements for 50 to 70 inmates.

Although those programs have been successful in checking the county’s incarceration rate, they have not reduced it enough to prevent the jail from exceeding its operational limit of 166 inmates, McGovern said. Therefore, the county would spend at least $1.5 million in 2017 to house inmates in the jails of other counties, he said.

Adding urgency to the need for the proposed $30 million, 126-bed jail expansion was the increasing difficulty in finding those out-of-county placements, McGovern said. Other counties, too, were dealing with overcrowding issues stemming from the same factors that were increasing Douglas County’s population numbers despite fewer bookings into the jail, he said. Those factors include longer state-mandated sentences, the state’s decision to have many offenders serve sentences in county jails rather than state prisons, and the state changing the standard for a speedy trial in district courts from 90 days to 150 days, he said.

“The long and short of it is, we need to make a priority of moving forward on the expansion or renovation — I don’t care what you call it — not only for the safety and security of inmates, the safety and security of officers but the safety and security of the community,” he said.

Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan said he understood the sheriff’s call for urgency.

“This is the first time the sheriff has addressed the commission on the issue in two years,” he said. “He’s waited very patiently for us to get to work on this. That’s the takeaway for me.”

McGovern also shared data he said was meant to assess whether the jail expansion plan would work in the long term. He said projections indicated that the number of beds added in current expansion plans for male minimum- and medium-security inmates would be inadequate when the jail opened and that situation would only get worse as the county’s population grew over the next 20 years. The good news, he said, was that the same projections indicated more than adequate space now and in the future for other inmate classifications.

Gaughan said he was thankful the sheriff was able to provide a better forecast of the jail’s needs while plans were still being developed.

“Our work continues to find the right configuration,” he said. “We need to take a long look at what the sheriff and his staff are seeing to make sure we have the right configuration for future needs. We don’t want to be doing this again in five years.”

Once McGovern finished his presentation, Justice Matters board member Barbara Palmer addressed commissioners to reiterate the group’s advocacy for affordable housing, mental health access, lower incarceration rates, racial tolerance and better care for traumatized children. Although she was complimentary of the county’s efforts on criminal justice reform, Palmer argued the jail expansion was counterproductive. Rather, she said, resources should be invested in the hiring of additional district court judges, programs to help female substance abuses and victims of domestic violence, alternative programs for addicts and initiatives meant to reduce the number of people jailed for failure to appear in court, she said.

Palmer also chastised the commissioners for failing to attend the group’s March 30 Nehemiah Action Assembly.

In response, Derusseau said she was never formally invited, producing a “save-the-date” email that twice stated she might not be the county representative invited to the assembly. Derusseau, who met with Justice Matters members three weeks before the assembly, added that because of what she said were “misrepresentations” made of her and the County Commission at the assembly, she would now only meet Justice Matters during regular County Commission meetings.

“As commissioners, we attend a lot of events and we get invited to a lot of meetings,” she said. “None of those other organizations have ever maliciously misrepresented us or represented our absence as meaning we don’t care. You are sadly mistaken if you think that is any way to foster collaboration or build a working relationship, because all you did was create distrust between the public and us. Speaking just for myself, any meeting between us going forward will be just like this. It will be in this room on Wednesday so it will be very clear on public record that I am listening.”