Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion

Douglas County Jail

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.

More coverage

• Feb. 21, 2018 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says

• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says

• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax

• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail

• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail

• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject

• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can’t use them

• Jan. 30 — State law won’t allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax

• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus

• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding

• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question

• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there’s a way, but county unlikely to go there

• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives

• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court

• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually

• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won’t find treatment in Douglas County

• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence’s sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health

• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot

• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming

• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing’s role in crisis recovery

• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH

• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan

• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design

• Nov. 26 — Sheriff’s Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding

• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds

• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say

• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars

• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects

• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding

• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget

• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests

• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority