Douglas County commissioner: As in case of jail expansion, duty may not always align with public opinion

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Douglas County Commissioners, from left, Nancy Thellman, Michelle Derusseau and Patrick Kelly discuss cost estimates for a revised plan to expand the Douglas County Jail at their meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said one hard part of being an elected official is sometimes having to make decisions that don’t entirely align with public opinion. Expanding the local jail may be one of those decisions.

As the Journal-World reported earlier this week, some vocal opponents to previous jail expansion plans amounting to $44 million have not changed their minds about scaled-down plans, which preliminary estimates peg at $23 million. But county leaders and local law enforcement have been pushing for the move for several years now.

“I don’t know that there’s ever going to be reconciling those two stands,” Thellman said. “No question, this is a hard time to get public support for law enforcement projects, and especially anything related to incarceration.

“I understand the angst behind that. I really do,” she continued. “But I also understand that, as county commissioners, in our job, our responsibility is to oversee public safety, public infrastructure, public dollars, and work with the facts — and the facts are that our jail is not adequate to meet the needs of the people inside it.”

County voters in May 2018 rejected Proposition 1, which would have raised a half-cent sales tax for behavioral health projects and the $44 million jail expansion. But commissioners say there was a lot more to that vote than just the jail. For instance, Thellman said, some people were voting against a sales tax; others were unhappy that the ballot question tied together the issues of behavioral health and the jail expansion.

The potential for the county to move forward with funding an expansion via a means that doesn’t require a public vote has some opponents concerned.

“We don’t think it’s very ethical, and we think it’s disrespectful to the voters,” Brent Hoffman, vice president of Justice Matters, one of the opposition groups in the May election, told the Journal-World last week.

But if commissioners do proceed with a jail expansion without seeking voter approval, it wouldn’t be the first time government has taken such action after previously being rejected at the ballot box. Thellman noted it even has been done recently.

Thellman cited as an example the city of Lawrence and its plans for a police headquarters. Voters in 2014 rejected a sales tax increase to fund that project; instead, the city found other ways to finance the facility that didn’t require voter approval.

“I think (the police headquarters) really speaks to the issue of local government being responsible for local public facilities and infrastructure, and as frustrating as it is, the decisions of the local government don’t always match the public opinion,” she said. “It’s a hard place to be, but that’s part of the hard responsibility of being an elected official.”

Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau detailed some of the jail’s space concerns in an email to the Journal-World on Tuesday.

“We have women of all security levels in one pod. We have people sleeping in laundry rooms and in training rooms,” she wrote. “Our training programs, once nationally recognized for successfully reducing recidivism are almost non-existent because the program space now contains beds.

“We have people in minimum security who should be allowed to go in and out of their cells into day areas that are now confined in their cells 23 hours a day because their space is being shared with maximum security inmates. Our goal is to ensure those who must be in our jail are safe.”

Newly seated Commissioner Patrick Kelly echoed Derusseau’s concerns about how minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates share the same spaces.

“We’re in a situation at our correctional facility now where we have people sleeping on the floors, and I don’t think that’s a path to rehabilitation,” Kelly said. “I think we can do better than that in Douglas County.”

Derusseau also pointed out that there are many inmates currently housed in jails “up to three hours away from their family, from their attorney and from programs designed to help them be successful upon their release.” Commissioners want to ensure the jail is capable of providing space for rehabilitation.

“When so many of our folks are sent out of county, where there are no programs for counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy or drug counseling, the chances (that) folks will come home and get in trouble again from those other counties’ facilities are pretty high,” Thellman said.

Opponents of the jail expansion have called for the county to try other means of reducing the jail’s population before it permanently expands the facility’s footprint. But Derusseau wrote on Tuesday that the county is providing funding for alternative programs that keep an average of 155 people out of jail every day. A few the county has enacted in the past few years include the Behavioral Health Court, pretrial release and home-arrest programs.

“This is a complicated, multifaceted problem, and the county is trying to address it with every means we have,” Thellman said — namely, conducting studies, adding staff and resources, and pushing the courts and programs for alternatives to incarceration. “… We want a facility that works, is right-sized, the right service, and we want to proceed aggressively with criminal justice reforms as well — and it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Justice Matters, a local coalition of faith-based communities that has opposed the jail expansion, has called for a comprehensive study of the county’s criminal justice system. An example of such a study that the group has cited is one conducted for Oklahoma City by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Thellman said that many of the suggestions from that study are already in practice in Douglas County, and the county has already undertaken several smaller studies that would be included in a comprehensive one. She said she could see the value in a comprehensive look two or three years down the line “to see what impact our work has had after we’ve taken some time to implement what we’ve already learned.”

Derusseau also said state-level issues are having an impact at the county level.

“The State of Kansas needs to invest in criminal justice reform, fully fund our district courts and revisit mandatory sentencing guidelines that basically tie the hands of our judges,” she wrote, noting that the commission has expressed those concerns to legislators representing the county in Topeka.

Kelly said he wants to continue to engage with the public about this issue within and beyond the walls of the commission’s chamber in the courthouse.

“I’m really looking for a way forward here for our community that’s not, ‘Either you’re in or you’re out on the jail,'” he said. “… I think we’ve got to continue to have conversations, and the quicker we draw lines in the sand, I think that makes it harder and harder to work together as a community.”

Thellman has heard plenty of public comment in meetings from those who oppose a jail expansion. But she said she’s also heard from many folks who are in favor of it.

“We have to be careful, as always, not to count out the fact that there are folks who supported Prop 1 — and quite a few of them — and there are folks who want us to do this work,” she said.

And in regards to those who don’t: “Righteous indignation is hard. It’s a powerful influencer, and we’re in a position of having to just deal with that and do the best we can,” Thellman said.

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