Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

A group has formed to campaign in favor of the proposed countywide half-cent sales tax and the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives that the tax would fund.

Jean Shepherd, a retired Douglas County District Court judge, said she would head the group Citizens for a Better Douglas County with its treasurer, former local bank executive Jean Milstead. The group, which includes among its members former Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory and former Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six, will make the case that the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives are needed.

If voters approve the sales tax referendum, 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 with a crisis center and supported housing. 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. Mail-in ballots will be sent April 25 to the county’s registered voters and counted May 15.

“From living and working in this community for some time, I have been aware of the need for a state-of-the-art mental health crisis center,” Shepherd said. “That the county has brought all the players together to provide a mental health proposal of that scope is really quite phenomenal. I have watched the situation at the jail become more and more difficult for the people who work there and in custody. I strongly believe we have the obligation to provide them (inmates) with services that serve them when they leave so they don’t become caught in a revolving door back to jail.”

With Douglas County elected officials and staff limited by statute to neutral informational comments, Citizens for a Better Douglas County will take on that advocacy role in a campaign that already includes organized opposition.

Earlier this month, the Lawrence faith-based activist group Justice Matters, the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, the social justice advocacy group Kansas Appleseed and the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance announced the formation of Jail No coalition to campaign against the referendum. At a joint March 2 event at the Douglas County Courthouse, representatives of the different groups said their opposition was based on the jail expansion, as the coalition’s name implies. The Jail No representatives were also critical of the County Commission’s linking the jail expansion and behavioral health initiatives on the same ballot question, saying county residents should be allowed to decide the individual merits of each proposal.

Such a linkage was not unprecedented in Douglas County, Shepherd said. The 1994 ballot initiative that funded construction of the current jail also built the Community Health Building that is home to Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the aquatic center at Free State High School. Those projects were part of a countywide 1-cent sales tax that is required, by law, to be shared between the county and the other cities in the county.

“I think there is a connection between community health and the jail,” she said. “The proposals would not only place behavioral health professionals in the jail, but would provide an available option to place offenders when appropriate. But the front door of the crisis center is for the community. It is not a jail removal crisis center filled with inmates.”

Shepherd said that the group would distribute campaign signs urging county residents to vote for the referendum and that its members would make the case for the proposals it would fund in upcoming forums on the issue.