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.
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• May 14, 2018 — County clerk reports that about 40 percent of Proposition 1 ballots have been returned by eve of deadline
• May 9 — Latest debate in sales tax election: How far can the county go in pushing for a ‘yes’ vote?
• May 8 — Proposition 1 brochures removed from County Treasurer’s Office counter after citizen complains
• May 7 — Proposition 1 ballots coming in at ‘impressive’ rate; county clerk says turnout could exceed 45 percent
• April 30 — Jail referendum fact check: A look at what both sides aren’t saying about the heated campaign
• April 30 — Midcase mental health evaluations for Douglas County jail inmates have increased
• April 30 — How much is violent crime up in Douglas County? Either a lot or very little, depending on which statistics you look at
• April 24 — A look at what is included in the proposed Douglas County Jail expansion
• April 23 — Americans for Prosperity campaigning against sales tax in county referendum
• April 22 — At forum, Douglas County commissioner explains 'what if' option if sales tax referendum fails
• April 22 — Get ready to vote: Questions and answers on the Douglas County half-cent sales tax ballot question
• April 22 — 4,198 days in: Meet the Douglas County Jail’s 5 longest residents
• April 20 — County says Justice Matters using wrong law to try to force mental health vote; group plans to start petition drive on Saturday
• April 18 — Douglas County leaders learn about first participant in diversion program for female inmates; Thellman cites Constitution on jail expansion issue
• April 17 — Average daily population at Douglas County Jail fell slightly in 2017 to reverse 5-year trend
• April 17 — Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate
• April 17 — Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded
• April 16 — Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed
• April 16 — What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour
• April 15 — Speakers at criminal justice, behavioral health forum look beyond jail expansion, crisis center
• April 14 — County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message
• April 11 — Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem
• April 9 — Douglas County Commission may be forced to put new mental health, tax plan on November ballot
• March 25 — Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend
• March 22 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority