Editorial: Next steps on jail issue

Douglas County officials have no shortage of options before them now that voters have rejected a proposal to implement a half-cent sales tax to fund an expansion of the county jail and the construction of a mental health crisis center.

But it would be wrong to make a quick decision in the wake of Tuesday’s emotionally charged election. Instead, county officials must set emotion aside, thoroughly assess Tuesday’s election results and then develop the right approach.

Research indicates clear support for the mental health crisis center. That isn’t an issue. What is an issue is how to improve the county’s aging, crowded jail.

The county jail has beds for 186 inmates, but the county’s inmate population has been greater than 200 for nearly three years now. The county spends more than $1 million per year housing its inmates in other area jails.

Some 26,000 votes were cast in Tuesday’s election, with voters rejecting the proposition 53 percent to 47 percent. The margin was 1,542 votes, by no means a landslide.

There is the possibility that a revised proposal with a smaller jail expansion than the $44 million project proposed would win approval next time around.

Other options include pressing forward with a smaller jail expansion that county commissioners work into the existing budget in phases or leasing portable jail units to house inmates until a more permanent solution is developed.

Wisely, county commissioners have scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m. May 30 at the Douglas County Courthouse to hear public feedback on how the county should proceed. That meeting should be key to any decision commissioners make.

Hopefully, those who actively opposed Proposition 1 will offer constructive input at the public meeting. That includes the Jail No campaign, a coalition made up of four groups: the faith-based activist group Justice Matters, the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, the social justice group Kansas Appleseed and the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance.

Jail No members believe alternatives to incarceration should be exhausted before the jail is expanded. But that requires reforming the judicial system, something that is well beyond the control of Douglas County.

Inmates referred to the county’s custody should be confined safely, humanely and locally. Finding a way to affordably accomplish that is a challenge not only for the county, but also the community.


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