Douglas County leaders learn about first participant in diversion program for female inmates; Thellman cites Constitution on jail expansion issue

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

A DCCCA program director updated Douglas County commissioners Wednesday on a jail diversion program targeting women with histories of substance abuse by briefly telling them about the first woman selected for the program.

Sandra Dixon, DCCCA director of behavioral health services, said the woman selected to be the first person in the pilot program was born to a 16-year-old mother addicted to cocaine. She was repeatedly sexually abused as a child, has been sexually assaulted and started drinking at age 13. Before her most recent arrest and her selection for the treatment program, the woman, who is not yet 25, was a habitual user of methamphetamine and heroin. She has a prior drug-related conviction.

The woman and all future participants will receive at no charge a “suite” of wraparound services, which start with inpatient detox treatment and graduate to intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment, Dixon said. The services can also include mental health counseling, housing assistance, child care and employment assistance, Dixon said.

Dixon said the woman would start her substance abuse treatment soon. She said it would probably take about nine months for the woman to complete the program.

The County Commission agreed last summer to provide the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office and DCCCA $260,000 in the 2018 budget for the pilot program. The goal is to place eight or nine female inmates in the program this year.

District Attorney Charles Branson said what made the pilot program different from the other diversion programs was the targeting of inmates with prior convictions for nonviolent drug-related crimes.

In other business, the County Commission:

• Approved a property transfer agreement in which Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center will provide land it owns at 1000 W. Second St. to the county. If voters approve a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million jail expansion, an $11 million behavioral health campus and other behavioral health projects, the behavioral health campus will be built on that land. Bert Nash traded the property just north of its headquarters for the benefits it will realize from the activities on the campus.

• Concluded the meeting with Chair Nancy Thellman responding to a story that appeared Wednesday in the Journal-World about the fact that no legal finding is requiring the county to expand its jail.

In her comments, Thellman acknowledged the Journal-World article correctly reported that the county was facing no current legal mandate to expand the jail. That would require a court order as a result of a lawsuit, she said. The Journal-World article was spurred by a potentially confusing statement included in a Douglas County sales tax referendum brochure that stated “legally, a jail expansion must occur — the question is how it is financed.”

Thellman, as she did when interviewed for Wednesday’s story, maintained the County Commission believes it has a legal obligation to expand the jail because of its obligation to operate and maintain a jail, and that under Kansas statutes, inmates “shall be treated with humanity, and in a manner which promotes their reform.”

On Wednesday, Thellman also highlighted the county has obligations under the U.S. Constitution. Thellman cited the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Case law involving Kansas statute and the Eighth Amendment have established minimum standards for medical care, person safety, shelter, sanitation, food, clothing and exercise that could put the county in legal jeopardy if not adhered to, she said.

“We cannot allow that to happen,” she said. “And this is why we have identified the need for a jail expansion.”