Your Turn: Jail expansion would worsen a painful reality

The Journal-World headline read “Jail’s daily population fell in 2017, reversing a 5-year trend.” The article continued: “The decrease stems from the introduction last year of behavioral health court, pretrial release and home arrest programs.” As a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, I applaud this news. Created in March 2016, the CJCC provides for coordination and communication among the criminal justice system. The programs referred to have been implemented since the CJCC was formed, and some have the CJCC linked with the debate about the jail. But the CJCC has not been asked to take a position or offer an opinion about the proposed jail and mental health projects.

But I have formed an opinion. A yes vote from me requires meeting two benchmarks: alternatives to incarceration have been exhausted and there’s a process in place with a timeline that will provide information about the overrepresentation of persons of color in jail.

Neither of these benchmarks has been met for me. Discussions are underway about a process that I hope will lead to answers about the overrepresentation of persons of color in jail. I think this will happen, but contracts have not been signed and funding has not been secured. It will come as no surprise to anyone who serves on the CJCC that without at least this, I simply cannot support expanding a jail that will very likely further exacerbate an already painful and unjust reality.

Then there is the question of alternatives to incarceration. For example, there’s a work-release program in the jail; persons in jail leave during the day, work in the community and return to jail following work. If it’s safe to have these persons working in the community, why do they have to be in jail? Can monitoring equipment be used instead?

The district attorney’s commendable leadership on diversions has resulted in a relatively low incarceration rate in Douglas County. Still, I wonder if the fee required for the diversion program impacts who can participate? Does the inability to post bail contribute to the numbers of persons in jail? At the last meeting, the CJCC discussed exploring a drug court; is this another tool that might decrease the number of persons in jail?

Through the CJCC, I have learned that the Douglas County Jail is one of the best in the state; there are excellent programs, it is well-managed, etc. This does not happen by accident or overnight; it takes work and it is important and commendable. There seems to have been less emphasis on alternatives to incarceration. Except for diversion, the alternatives to incarceration that are being pointed to have been implemented only within the last year as confirmed in the LJW article. I am not sure that we have seen the full impact that these or other programs could have. I wonder if the conversation would be different today if alternatives to incarceration had the same emphasis as the quality of the jail has had. I agree that something must be done that addresses the needs of women in the jail and other conditions that have been named; I am not convinced a $44 million expansion is the only way.

I am not interested in demeaning the leadership and work of the county commissioners. I was invited to serve on the CJCC first by Nancy Thellman, then, by Mike Gaughan; both knew my opinion about a jail expansion, and they still invited me to serve. I believe the commissioners are persons of integrity, doing what they think is best for the people of Douglas County. That’s their job. But people of good will can disagree. I can respect the leadership of the commissioners and disagree with their position on the jail or on any other public concern. Making my own decision is my job as a citizen and member of the community, and has nothing to do with my trust or respect of individuals.

Finally, it is personally distasteful to see equally important justice needs pitted against each other; a just and caring mental health system versus a just criminal justice system, which is perhaps an unintended consequence of the tax law. But we know the difference between intent and impact. And I am all too familiar when the choice presented is the promise of one marginalized group being better off at the expense of another marginalized group. Generally, in the long run, no one wins.

— Edith Guffey is a member of Douglas County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.