With alternative programs in place, Douglas County Jail still overpopulated with at least 40 inmates housed out of the county

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Jail is shown in this Journal-World file photo from February 2015.

Although several programs meant to provide alternatives to incarceration and decrease the number of inmates in the Douglas County Jail have garnered some positive results, county officials say the jail still needs to be expanded to address overcrowding.

Since those programs — including pre-trial release, house arrest and behavioral health court — were implemented, Douglas County has been able to reduce the number of inmates it sends to the jails of other counties by about 20 at any given time.

But the alternatives to incarceration were installed in the hope that they would have a more significant impact on the overall jail population.

“It hasn’t had the impact that a lot of folks had hoped it would,” said Mike Brouwer, criminal justice coordinator for Douglas County. “There was a lot of people, myself included, that hoped that alternatives to incarceration … would help relieve the jail population to the point we wouldn’t have to expand.”

Brouwer, who served as the reentry director for the jail before becoming the coordinator last month, said it was now clear that the jail needs to be expanded.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Mike Brouwer, criminal justice coordinator for Douglas County, speaks to the Douglas County Commission during a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.

However, leaders of the faith-based social activist group Justice Matters, which has opposed the expansion of the jail for years, believe more alternative programs need to be explored before the county spends millions of dollars on the expansion.

On Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission will continue discussions on its plan to expand the jail, as managers of the project are expected to present an anticipated cost for the project during the commission’s meeting.

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In the last several years, between 50 and 80 inmates on average were being housed in jails outside of Douglas County, said Jenn Hethcoat, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. This year, the number appears to have dropped, but not enough to be considered a substantial change.

Since February, the number of inmates housed outside the county has fluctuated between 43 and 61 inmates at a time, according to the statistics the Douglas County Jail provides to the Journal-World on a weekly basis.

Capt. Wes Houk, a jail administrator for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, told the Journal-World that research about the installation of the programs indicated that an initial dramatic change to the jail population would occur. But he said the research also showed that it would eventually plateau. Houk said he thought that the programs have reached their plateau.

But the Rev. Joanna Harader, of Justice Matters, said the organization thought the alternative programs had not been given enough time to develop. She noted they were all installed in the last few years and said they should be given more time to grow before the jail is expanded.

Additionally, she said, the group thinks even more alternative options need to be explored and possibly implemented.

“Current efforts at justice reform and alternative programming should be supported and allowed to reach their full potential, and other research-based solutions should be implemented before we spend any more money on jail expansion,” Harader said in an email to the Journal-World. “We should work to keep people in their actual homes, not merely bring them to a jail cell in their home county.”

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The County Commission does not appear to agree with Justice Matters.

In February, the commission directed staff to move forward with planning for the jail expansion, aiming to increase the jail’s 186 beds to between 312 and 340 beds, the Journal-World previously reported. The project was estimated at the time to cost $23 million to $25 million.

However, in November, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky asked the commission to allow county staff to investigate alternative options for the “step-down” portion of the jail expansion. She said the county may be better served using that space or funding for that expanded portion for other uses, such as more robust programming.

photo by: TreanorHL via Douglas County/Contributed Image

This design plan, first shared with the Douglas County Commission on Jan. 16, 2019, shows options of adding a south tower and a separate wing for re-entry programming at the Douglas County Jail.

That portion of the expansion proposed adding a new wing for 28 male and 14 female inmates in reentry programs and who are eligible for work release. The research could result in a smaller expansion of the jail, providing fewer new beds than originally proposed.

The commission approved the request, directing the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to do the research. But commissioners Nancy Thellman and Michelle Derusseau stressed urgency for the project.

Derusseau said the county needed to expand the jail to provide enough space for inmates to be held in their home county, rather than sending dozens to jails all over the state.

“I really want to see us moving forward as quickly as possible,” Derusseau said at the time. “This is people’s lives we’re talking about.”

While the CJCC investigates the possible alternatives for the step-down portion, the county is moving forward with plans to add a four-floor south tower to the jail facility. That proposed expansion is estimated to add between 84 and 112 beds to the facility, according to previous Journal-World reporting.

Brouwer said he thought the alternative programs have had a significant impact, but it’s not enough to erase the need for an expansion. He pointed to the most recent jail statistics, released on Dec. 6, that showed about 170 people were using the alternative programs.

He estimated about half or two-thirds of those people would be inmates at the jail if the programs were not available. And if they were, the jail would have about 300 inmates, close to the jail’s expected capacity after the expansion.

Brouwer said he thought the county needed to both provide alternative programming and expand the jail to address the issue.

“It’s never been about ‘either or,'” he said. “It’s always been, ‘we have to do both.'”

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