Editorial: Jail needs

It’s unfortunate but necessary for Douglas County to put forth a plan to expand and improve its jail.

Most people in Douglas County probably have things they’d rather spend $30 million on than improvements to the Douglas County Jail.

Nonetheless, providing adequate jail facilities is a county responsibility that won’t go away and, in this case, may grow more expensive if expansion plans are delayed.

The 187-bed jail has been at full capacity for about 18 months. During that time, the county has had to contract with other counties to house Douglas County inmates in their jails. What once was a fairly minor expense now has mushroomed. Since mid-2015, the county has been housing 60 to 70 inmates in other counties, with spikes of more than 80 inmates.

The county currently is spending an average of $90,000 a month to house inmates in other facilities. At that rate, the county would spend more than $1 million this year to cover those costs.

Several factors are contributing to that trend, according to county officials. The number of jail bookings has not gone up dramatically, but the average stay for an inmate rose from 7.8 days in 2011 to about 11.6 days in 2015. The jail also has encountered problems because it was not designed to house as many women or as many people with mental illness as it now must serve. The proposed 120-bed expansion of the jail would provide more and better facilities for those populations, as well as more space for re-entry programs and classes designed to help inmates successfully return to the community and avoid repeat stays in jail.

Planning for a jail expansion has been paired from the beginning with discussions of how to better serve people with mental illness and perhaps keep them out of jail. Those discussions led to planning with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center for a new mental health crisis center. In a recent public meeting, one speaker objected to having funding for the two projects tied together because voters would be likely to approve of the crisis center but not the jail. The jail and the crisis center share an important and related mission that would provide a real community benefit. It would be unfortunate to see one project pitted against the other.

Although the county must provide jail services, it has little control over how many inmates it must serve. Even the discretion of local courts is limited by mandatory state sentencing laws. State prisons also are filling up, and some state officials are looking at housing more inmates in county jails across the state. Reimbursement for providing those facilities might offset expenses at the Douglas County Jail, but it won’t reduce the need for additional space.

It’s discouraging to many that, only 17 years after the new Douglas County Jail opened, the county is looking at a major expansion project, but it’s unlikely that crowding at the jail is a temporary situation. Putting off dealing with the situation won’t make it go away.