Opponents of Douglas County Jail expansion not assuaged by cheaper plan

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

After Douglas County staff trimmed a cost estimate for an expansion of the local jail by $21 million, the most outspoken opponents to the first plan have not changed their tune.

Several local groups formed the Jail No coalition last March to oppose a May 2018 ballot question — Proposition 1 — that asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund behavioral health services and a $44 million expansion of the jail. In the election, voters defeated the measure 53 percent to 47 percent, or by more than 1,500 votes.

Now, there is a possibility a $23 million expansion of the jail could happen without a vote of the public. Some opponents are crying foul.

“We don’t think it’s very ethical, and we think that it’s disrespectful to the voters,” said Brent Hoffman, vice president of Justice Matters, which was one of the opposition groups in the May election.

Leaders from two of the Jail No groups recently affirmed that they still oppose the pared-down plans, which preliminary cost estimates peg at $23 million.

Justice Matters, a local coalition of faith-based communities, still wants to have a better understanding of why the population of the jail has grown significantly over the past several years before the facility is permanently expanded, Hoffman said.

The jail’s average daily population dropped to 231 in 2017 from 238.9 in 2016, but that decrease followed a five-year upward trend, the Journal-World has reported. Undersheriff Gary Bunting told the newspaper in April that the decrease came from new initiatives such as behavioral health court, pretrial release and home arrest programs.

Hoffman, however, said there are dozens of other alternatives that could help to alleviate more pressure at the jail. A couple of those from a list the group provided to the Journal-World include restorative justice neighborhood courts and jail admission policies to avoid locking up nonviolent offenders.

First and foremost, however, Hoffman said his group wants the county to take on a study to find out the reason for the overpopulation and potentially determine how to address the root causes.

“A study in reform can be done faster than jail construction, by the way,” he said. “Building the jail, brick and mortar, is going to take a lot longer than a study, which shouldn’t take more than six to eight months.”

The county has not yet determined exactly how the expansion will be funded, but it has discussed a few options — some of which are also a concern for opponents of the expansion.

One is to shuffle around $2.9 million, which the commission cut from annual spending in the 2019 budget so it could free up existing sales tax dollars to be used for bond payments to finance tens of millions in improvements to the jail. Traditionally, the issuance of new bonds by the county requires a vote of the public, but county officials think they have found a way to avoid such a vote by using a sales tax approved in 1994 to pay for the jail expansion and using the $2.9 million in budget cuts to replace the money it is taking for the sales tax fund.

Hoffman said he thinks the plan — especially since it would not require voter approval — “circumvents” county voters.

The Lawrence Sunset Alliance, a local taxpayer watchdog group, also joined the Jail No coalition last spring. Treasurer Patrick Wilbur said the shuffling of funds creates “bad optics,” because it shows that the county knows voters wouldn’t approve the spending if it went through the typical process of seeking voter approval to debt finance capital projects.

“The county asks for public input, and they get public input in the form of an election; they get public input in the form of people showing up for meetings and expressing their concerns, and it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference,” Wilbur said. “… The more direct way to do it, the more accountable way to do it, would be to do it through the budget.”

Asked whether the alliance would continue to actively oppose the jail expansion plans, Wilbur said, “If it’s going to call for a permanent expansion of the footprint of the jail, if it’s going to use financing that avoids public input, then we’ll have to.

“We had the election last year, and we thought that was the public input at that point, but we’ve got another fight on our hands, apparently.”

Dropping the jail expansion is not an option, commissioners have said. The commission, county staff and representatives of the Douglas County Jail have cited security and safety of inmates and jail staff, as well as an inability to make effective use of the jail’s re-entry programs to prevent recidivism, as key reasons for the need.

Douglas County Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau and Commissioner Nancy Thellman didn’t immediately respond to voicemails seeking comment for this article Monday afternoon.

However, Derusseau told the Journal-World after the ballot question failed on May 15 that misinformation during the campaign confused voters.

“Based on phone calls I received, a lot of people thought a ‘no’ vote would end any jail expansion and stop any tax increase,” she said at the time. “I think there will be a lot of disappointed people when they find out that isn’t the case.”

Thellman said after ballots were counted that the commission would “let the dust settle and then listen to what the public has to say, but the needs will still be there.” She echoed Derusseau’s point to the Journal-World more recently.

“We tried to be clear with Proposition 1 that the election was about how we would fund the jail expansion, not whether we would expand the jail,” she said in November.

The Lawrence branch of the NAACP, another group that was part of the Jail No coalition, could not be reached for comment Monday. However, President Ursula Minor previously said that the group “believes there should be no jail expansion until there has been substantial progress in reducing racial disparities at the jail.”

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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