Douglas County District Court brings in outside judge to preside over jail expansion lawsuit

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

The Douglas County Jail, 3601 E 25th St., is pictured on April 7, 2020

The Douglas County District Court is bringing in an outside judge to preside over a lawsuit that aims to stop the expansion of the county jail.

Chief Judge James McCabria said Thursday in an email to the Journal-World that the outside judge, James Fleetwood, was needed because the Douglas County judges had recused themselves from the case to avoid a conflict of interest.

Although not all of the court’s judges preside over criminal cases, McCabria said that could change and any judge could receive a special assignment to one. Because of that, McCabria said, the court’s judges could all be put into a situation where they must consider using the county jail.

“Regardless of any particular judge’s ability to be fair and impartial, these circumstances create a situation that may fairly be said to cause people of reasonable minds to question the independence and impartiality of our local bench to adjudicate the issues framed by this lawsuit,” McCabria said via email. “In short, I made the decision to request a senior judge with the view of promoting confidence in the integrity of any decision in the case, regardless of what that decision may be.”

Fleetwood is a retired judge who previously served the state’s 18th Judicial District Court, which processes cases from Sedgwick County and Wichita. He now serves as one of the state’s senior judges — retired judges who agree to hear cases in various districts.

In the suit, local activist group Justice Matters argues that Douglas County commissioners are not allowing residents to vote or petition against the plan to fund an expansion of the jail, despite the group’s belief that they have an obligation to do so under state law.

John Bullock, an attorney for the county, filed a response to the suit asking for the court to dismiss the case because the county believes it already has the legal authority to issue bonds for the project through a 1-cent sales tax referendum county voters approved in 1994.

The first hearing for the case is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.

The Justice Matters lawsuit is a culmination of a yearslong effort by the group and others to stop the county from expanding the jail to house more inmates. As the Journal-World has reported, county leaders say that the jail is overcrowded, making it unsafe for both staff and inmates; opponents argue that the county needs to try more alternatives to incarceration to lower the jail’s population.

Two local nonprofit organizations, Justice Matters and the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with five individuals who reside within the county, are petitioning for an injunction to stop the county from issuing bonds to fund the planned expansion, estimated to cost roughly $29.6 million, plus a separate estimated $1.5 million renovation of the jail’s central heating and cooling plant.

The county had approximately $9 million on hand to go toward the jail, the Journal-World has reported. County staff planned to pursue a bond issue with a 20-year debt service to finance the rest of the estimated $31.1 million total, which is about $22.1 million.

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Related coverage: Douglas County Jail

April 7, 2020: Douglas County formally requests court to dismiss jail expansion lawsuit

April 6, 2020: Douglas County warned activist group of $3 million surety bond if it filed lawsuit challenging jail expansion

March 16, 2020: Douglas County Commission illegally blocking vote, petition against jail expansion funding, legal action alleges

Jan. 29, 2020: Despite commenters’ opposition, Douglas County Commission authorizes nearly $30 million jail expansion project

Jan. 25, 2020: Group wants Douglas County to let it finish studies before authorizing jail expansion

Jan. 22, 2020: Opponents question ethics of Douglas County’s plan to finance jail expansion project

Dec. 18, 2019: Expansion of Douglas County Jail expected to cost nearly $30 million; construction could start in early 2020

Dec. 15, 2019: With alternative programs in place, Douglas County Jail still overpopulated with at least 40 inmates housed out of the county

June 12, 2019: Douglas County Commission approves construction managers for jail expansion, behavioral health housing

May 14, 2019: Douglas County leaders call for further work on behavioral health, criminal justice

Jan. 23, 2019: Douglas County commissioner: As in case of jail expansion, duty may not always align with public opinion

Jan. 21, 2019: Opponents of Douglas County Jail expansion not assuaged by cheaper plan

Jan. 16, 2019: Cost estimate for pared-down Douglas County Jail expansion is $23M

Dec. 12, 2018: Undersheriff shares preliminary plans that would add a minimum of 84 beds to county jail

Dec. 11, 2018: County to look at concept plan for jail expansion; incoming commissioner explains campaign pledge on jail

Dec. 3, 2018: Douglas County laying groundwork for debt to fund jail expansion; plan won’t need voter approval

Nov. 21, 2018: Financial maneuvers could let Douglas County use bonds for jail improvements, officials say

Oct. 17, 2018: County Commission directs staff, sheriff’s office to develop $3 million jail expansion plan

Sept. 4, 2018: Sheriff’s office to present new inmate numbers as Douglas County renews jail overcrowding discussion

May 15, 2018: Douglas County voters reject controversial countywide sales tax; leaders say jail project will proceed after public input

April 17, 2018: Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded

April 11, 2018: Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem

March 4, 2018: Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says

March 3, 2018: Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion

Jan. 15, 2018: 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court

Nov. 8, 2017: Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds

May 14, 2017: Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests

Jan. 3, 2016: Douglas County Jail spending an average of $90,000 a month sending inmates to other area jails


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