Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
Leaders from two community activist groups clashed Saturday with Douglas County officials on the need for a $44 million jail expansion.
The panel discussion at the Lawrence Arts Center, which was hosted by the Douglas County Democratic Party and attended by hundreds of people, was advertised on the county’s website as a chance for county leaders to share facts about an upcoming referendum on a half-cent sales tax that would fund the jail expansion and a suite of mental health projects. State statute allows county commissioners and staff to provide information on the referendum, but it prohibits them from advocating for a specific position.
That was not true, however, for the two panelists from area nonprofits: Joanna Harader of the faith-based social activist group Justice Matters and Patrick Wilbur of the political advocacy group Lawrence Sunset Alliance. Harader and Wilbur openly shared their criticisms of the referendum with the county representatives on the panel — Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman; Mike Brouwer, director of the Douglas County Jail re-entry program; and Bob Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects.
While Harader and Wilbur acknowledged the need for the behavioral health initiatives, they were both sharply opposed to the jail expansion, the use of the sales tax as a funding source and the wording of the ballot question.
If approved by county voters, the half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million in annual revenue, which would be used for a $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million behavioral health campus. It would also provide $5.1 million a year for new behavioral health programming and $1 million of the $6.1 million needed per year to operate the expanded jail.
County commissioners have argued at recent meetings that they have a statutory obligation to expand the jail. Wilbur said that was not the case.
“The state requires the county have a jail to house inmates in a humane way,” he said. “There’s very little detail beyond that. We don’t have to do this right now, and we don’t have to do the jail before the mental health facility.”
Thellman disagreed, saying state statutes require the county to provide a sufficient, safe and secure jail, which promotes the reform of inmates. She said the current jail was “in crisis” because of overcrowding that required 50 to 60 inmates to be placed in out-of-county jails.
The county also had a moral obligation to provide a more therapeutic jail environment to those with mental health issues and to separate violent and nonviolent female inmates, Thellman said. The plans for the expanded jail include special pods for female inmates and inmates with mental health issues.
And Brouwer said the need to farm out inmates who would benefit most from the jail’s re-entry program undermines its effectiveness of preparing offenders to succeed once released and has increased the recidivism rate of its participants by 10 percent.
Harader, of Justice Matters, said the county should move ahead with the behavioral health projects, but should wait to see what impact those services would have on criminal activity before adding more jail cells.
She also blasted the high incarceration rate of people of color, saying that the percentage of people of color in the jail is nearly four times higher than the percentage of people of color living in the county.
“Once the county has a plan in place to address that, then we can talk about expansion,” she said.
Harader and Wilbur both said the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives should have been advanced as separate ballot questions so voters could decide on their merits individually. Wilbur further criticized the lack of planning behind the referendum.
“Over the last nine years or so, the county mill levy has (gone) up 13.1 mills,” he said. “If we needed to expand that jail, I would say they needed to plan better on their discretionary spending.”
Wilbur said the half-cent sales tax would be a burden for low-income residents because it would force them to pay more for food and other necessities.
But Thellman said the county chose to ask a sales tax question because that would allow the county to tap into the increased revenue it would produce over time to offset higher behavioral health costs. That wouldn’t be the case with property taxes because the state’s tax lid law would prevent the county from taking full advantage of increases in property values.
The tax lid law generally caps how much of an increase in property tax revenue cities and counties can levy at the rate of inflation unless they get voter approval.
Should the referendum fail, the County Commission would move ahead with jail expansion and not the behavioral health campus, Thellman said. Commissioners would “sweep up” current county funding for nonessential services to bank the cash needed to expand the jail expansion in phases, Thellman said.
Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects, said that the referendum was a chance for Douglas County to become a pioneer in mental health. He said the proposed behavioral health crisis center would be one of the only such centers in the state with a sustainable public funding source.
Tryanski also recalled his own history of mental illness — including a “mental health crisis” he experienced while he was a graduate student at Syracuse University, which he said was brought on by his molestation by a priest when he was a child — and said he wanted the county to be able to provide the same kind of supportive environment that helped him to recover.
“It’s an opportunity to make that progress in a blood-red state that does all things possible to undermine recovery,” he said.
Ballots for the referendum will be mailed April 25 and counted May 15.