Your Turn: Reasons to vote yes on Proposition 1

False narratives are attempting to confuse Douglas County voters about the upcoming Proposition 1 vote.

This is not a vote for or against expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The county is statutorily responsible for providing a humane jail that promotes prisoner reform: after several years of public study, our elected county commissioners decided jail expansion is necessary.

This vote is about approving a jail expansion funding method that also funds a communitywide mental health and substance abuse crisis intervention, treatment and transition center located by Bert Nash and near Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

If the half-cent sales tax fails, the crisis center will not be funded, but county commissioners have said they will pursue a plan that will allow for jail expansion, but over many years and at greater expense.

The county joined these two issues on the ballot because the county, unlike the city, can only increase sales tax in quarter-cent increments. A quarter-cent increase is too much to remodel and enlarge the jail but not enough to cover the cost of constructing and staffing the mental health campus and funding its community outreach programs. A half-cent increase gives the county the flexibility to address both needs. Commissioners chose a sales tax increase rather than a property tax increase because a sales tax also generates revenue from visitors to our county. Twenty-eight percent of our jail inmates are nonresidents who came here for nefarious reasons; a sales tax lets county visitors help pay for these inmates.

In 2006, to address jail overcrowding, our sheriff’s office created a nationally recognized re-entry program that reduced recidivism from 44 percent to 30 percent. The program offers inmates more than 100 hours of restorative services including therapy, parenting education and substance abuse treatment. But our jail population continues to grow. Daily, the jail houses 50-80 inmates in other counties, at a taxpayer cost of $1.3 million annually. Our best-behaved inmates, many likely to succeed in re-entry programs, are the only ones other counties accept; now, instead of 100 hours of re-entry services, they receive 10 hours. Our recidivism rate has jumped to 43 percent. We need to bring our inmates home for services to slow that revolving door.

To address jail crowding, the county offers alternatives that, at any given time, keep 150 people out of jail. These include locating alternative placements and services through our nationally recognized AID screening program for behavioral health issues, supervised pretrial release, behavioral health court and house arrest. In spite of these, our jail population continues to swell in numbers and worsen in seriousness of inmate offenses. Since 2014, the county has seen a 101 percent increase in violent crimes against persons. Our jail incarceration rate, 1.8 per 1000 people, falls well below the Kansas (3.1) and national (3.3) averages. Still, realistically, there will always be people whom laws or public safety require be held in jail.

The women’s section of the jail was built with 14 cells. We now average 40 women in custody, those held locally with all security levels mixed together and 10-20 more sent to other jails. Our jail has only one 14-bed maximum security unit, complicating the necessary separation of co-defendants charged with serious crimes. A crowded jail leads to conflicts that put the safety of both inmates and officers at risk. Officer assistance calls have increased by 113 percent since 2014.

Douglas County voters have the opportunity to fund jail improvements and provide ongoing funding for a countywide crisis/ transition center and related services. The center, designed and planned by collaborating community professionals, will include:

• 23-hour crisis observation and 72-hour stabilization areas

• Sobering area

• Medication-assisted detoxification

• Short-term stabilization housing

• 24/7 crisis hotline

• Mobile countywide crisis team

• Addiction treatment facilities for 10 women with their children

• 12 transitional housing units with wraparound services

• 10 permanent housing units with continued support services

• Mental health professionals, WRAP, for Eudora, Lecompton and Baldwin middle and high schools

• Communitywide zero suicide program

• Case management system to ensure seamless services

• Communitywide opioid summit

There is one question on the ballot scheduled to be mailed on April 25 and returned by noon May 15. A no vote likely will not stop jail expansion. A no vote will stop construction and staffing of our mental health and substance abuse crisis center. A yes vote is the most rapid and cost-effective way to meet the needs of our community’s most vulnerable citizens, some of whom are in custody and many of whom are our friends, family and neighbors requiring a continuum of care for their on-going behavioral health needs.

I’m voting yes.

— Jean Shepherd is chair of Citizens for a Better Douglas County, an advocacy group that is supporting passage of the proposed sales tax.