Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Justice Matters co-chairman Ted Mosher speaks from a lectern in front of the Douglas County Courthouse as he and other activists kick off their campaign against the proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail on Saturday, March 3, 2018.

Representatives of four activist groups crowded the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse Saturday to kick off their joint campaign against a proposed expansion of the county jail and a referendum on a sales tax that would fund it.

“We are planning a comprehensive campaign with many partners right up to that mail-in ballot,” said Ted Mosher, co-chairman of the Lawrence faith-based activist group Justice Matters.

Justice Matters is one of the four groups behind the campaign, which the activists are calling “Jail No.” The other partners — the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, the social justice advocacy group Kansas Appleseed and the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance — also turned out Saturday to speak against the jail expansion and the half-cent sales tax.

If voters approve the sales tax, it will generate an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund construction of the $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 an expanded jail.

Patrick Wilbur, of the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, objected to using sales tax as a funding source. He said it was the most regressive way to pay for the project because it would force low-income residents to pay more for food and other necessities.

He also took a swipe at the referendum’s ballot language, noting it didn’t mention the property tax increases that would needed to pay for additional operational costs associated with the jail expansion. The total cost of the expansion for the next 20 years would be $165 million, he said.

Mosher said the Justice Matters board voted unanimously to oppose the referendum. It was a tough decision, he said, because Justice Matters supports the behavioral health initiatives the sales tax would fund, but the board ultimately decided it couldn’t support any measure that would allow for the incarceration of more Douglas County residents.

Kansas Appleseed and the NAACP also had concerns about incarceration rates.

Kansas Appleseed juvenile justice advocate Mike Fonkert noted that the number of people incarcerated in the county started to grow rapidly in 2015. The jail’s daily population grew from about 148 in March 2015 to 238 in October 2015. He said unless the county conducted a data-driven review to determine the root cause of the population increase, the new beds would soon be filled and the county would be seeking another expansion.

And Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence NAACP, recalled that her group had raised concerns about the number of people of color in the jail when the Douglas County Commission appointed a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council two years ago. She said the NAACP’s opposition to the project stemmed from the lack of progress she had seen in that area.

“The Lawrence branch of the NAACP believes there should be no jail expansion until there has been substantial progress in reducing racial disparities at the jail,” she said.

Mosher, Wilbur and Fonkert all said they supported the development of more behavioral health projects and emphasized that there would be alternative ways the county could fund the initiatives should the added sales tax authority be voted down. However, county leaders have said that although they will use property tax to fund the jail expansion if the referendum fails, they have no plans to do the same for the behavioral health projects.

Ballots for the referendum will be mailed April 25 and counted May 15.