Editorial: Balancing needs

Douglas County officials have shown their commitment to exploring jail alternatives, but they also have a responsibility to plan properly for future needs.

Douglas County commissioners have to balance many factors as they consider the expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

Local residents who advocate alternatives to traditional incarceration are right that commissioners shouldn’t move too quickly to final approval of a jail expansion, but the county also has reason to keep the process moving forward.

Commissioners undoubtedly would be happy if alternative treatments and placements reduced the number of inmates at the county jail, but it would be irresponsible of county officials not to look at ways to eliminate the need to spend about $90,000 a month to house Douglas County inmates in other facilities. Even if various initiatives can reduce the number of inmates, improvements will be needed to bolster security at the jail and provide adequate facilities for an increased population of female inmates.

County officials have worked with local law enforcement and mental health experts for many years to try to help inmates transition successfully into the community and stay out of jail. They have shown their continuing commitment to that effort by appointing the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to study how the county’s criminal justice system could be more effective and more fair. When commissioners voted last week to move forward with additional design work for the jail, Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who chairs the coordinating council, specifically noted that the group’s recommendations would be “fundamental” to that work.

Nonetheless, commissioners are painfully aware that the county jail that was opened 17 years ago already is inadequate to fill the county’s needs. Lawrence and Douglas County continue to grow, and commissioners must make sure they are taking a responsible look at future needs. No one probably would be happier than the county commissioners to find ways to reduce those needs. That’s why they have been supportive not only of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, but also of plans for a mental health crisis intervention center and a proposed mental health court.

Planning for jail improvements and exploring ways to reduce the jail population go hand in hand. The work that currently is happening on both of those fronts almost certainly will lead the community to a better decision and better facilities for the future.