Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
Get your earplugs, your nose plugs or any other means of protection you feel necessary during campaign season. Douglas County is about to enter it in full force thanks to the pending sales tax election for a jail expansion and mental health programs. Saturday will be a big day for the season as four groups are banding together to formally launch a “Vote No” campaign against the $44 million jail expansion.
The four groups are: Justice Matters, an interfaith coalition of about 20 church congregations; Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for “vulnerable and excluded Kansans”; the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, a local taxpayer watchdog organization; and the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP.
At least three of those four have been pretty vocal opponents already, but the NAACP hasn’t done as much to lend its voice to the opposition. It sounds like that will change on Saturday. Based on a press release sent out by the organizations, it appears the groups plan to run an organized opposition campaign. They are calling it “Jail No.” The campaign already has six talking points about why its members are urging a no vote.
• Relationships between jails and U.S. policies that lead to “mass incarceration.”
• A lack of understanding on the county’s part about what is driving the “recent explosion” in the rate of incarceration.
• A failure on the part of the county to embrace reforms to lower jail population.
• An over-representation of minorities in Douglas County’s criminal justice system.
• Use of a “regressive sales tax to fund the jail expansion, placing the greatest burden for funding on the poor.”
• “Contempt for the voters by the Douglas County Commission.” The groups argue that County Commissioners should have created two ballot questions — one for a sales tax that would fund new mental health programs, and a separate sales tax question for the jail expansion. In addition, the groups have become particularly irked in recent weeks as county commissioners have said even if the sales tax proposal fails, they will seek to do the jail expansion in phases, funding it through budget cuts and existing resources. The opposition groups have taken that as an explicit threat to voters.
County commissioners, of course, disagree with many of the opposition’s assertions. They believe opponents have been misrepresenting the rate of incarceration in Douglas County. County officials point to statistics that show local incarceration rates are below the national average and are near the lowest in the state of Kansas.
County officials also point to a multitude of programs they already have implemented to try to reduce the jail population, including a pre-trial release program that cuts down on the amount of time people spend in jail waiting for a court proceeding.
The county also believes a myth is forming in the community that there are lots of people in the Douglas County jail for simple offenses, such as small-scale possession of marijuana. County officials contend that if someone is in jail for simple marijuana possession they also have other underlying charges against them, such as fleeing from the police or some other action that made the incident more serious. (Full disclosure: The Journal-World is currently reviewing data about the jail’s population and hopes to soon publish an article detailing the type of inmates who currently are in jail.)
But, clearly, county officials have a lot of work cut out for them. Organized opposition groups aren’t that common in local elections. To have four groups come together to oppose a project is pretty rare in Douglas County politics.
Plus, there are several numbers that voters likely will want an explanation on. For example, the percentage of black inmates in Douglas County jail is high compared to the black population of the county.
Another question — one that I know the Journal-World is trying to get an answer to — is why does Douglas County have such a high percentage of felony court cases that take more than a year to resolve? As we’ve previously reported, 12.8 percent of all felony cases in Douglas County in fiscal year 2017 were still pending after a year in the system. Of the 31 judicial districts in the state, that is the sixth highest rate in Kansas. Notably, it is the highest rate of any urban county in the state. Thus far, we haven’t gotten a lot of answers from judicial officials about why that is the case.
And, finally, Douglas County officials may have to overcome a piece of their own literature. Homeowners this week should start receiving their annual change of value notices for their properties. As we’ve reported, more than 75 percent of all homeowners are going to see the tax values of their homes increase. Unless local governments make some sort of pledge to decrease property tax rates, those higher values essentially ensure that most residents will see higher property taxes next year.
Saturday may be a gauge of how spirited this campaign season will be. The four groups are hosting a rally on the west steps of the Douglas County Courthouse at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The sales tax election will be conducted by mail-in ballot. Ballots will begin arriving in mailboxes on April 24, and they will be counted on May 15.