Court sets deadlines for next responses in Douglas County jail expansion lawsuit
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
The Douglas County District Court on Wednesday set a deadline for a local activist group to respond to the county government’s motion to dismiss the group’s lawsuit that aims to halt the county’s plans to expand its jail.
Attorneys for Douglas County and Justice Matters, which has long opposed the jail expansion, met for the first hearing in the case on Wednesday through an online video conference.
After a lengthy discussion over procedural matters, Judge James Fleetwood said he expects attorneys for Justice Matters — William Skepnek, James Kaup and Teresa Woody — to respond by April 21 to the county’s request for the court to dismiss the case. Fleetwood, who is presiding over the case after the court’s judges recused themselves, also set a tentative deadline of April 28 for the county to file its subsequent response.
In the suit, Justice Matters and its allies argue 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 the county has 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 lawsuit is a culmination of a yearslong effort by Justice Matters 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.
Justice Matters and another local nonprofit organization, 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.
Additionally, the county said it expects the expansion to increase the jail’s operating cost by $6 million, which would be subsidized by $2.4 million worth of budget cuts the county made in 2019 and by saving about $1 million each year from no longer housing inmates out of the county. That would leave the county with a $2.6 million hole to fill through either making more cuts to the budget or raising local property taxes.
The jail currently has 186 beds for inmates, but the county wants to add up to another 112 beds to the facility through the expansion project.
However, during the coronavirus pandemic and state stay-at-home orders, the county jail’s inmate population has decreased significantly.
The jail’s population has fallen to 119 inmates, with another six inmates housed out of county and another four listed as temporarily out, according to statistics on the jail’s website Wednesday afternoon. Prior to the stay-at-home orders in March, the jail housed 176 inmates, with 25 housed out of county, according to the jail’s March 13 statistics.
From Tuesday morning through early Wednesday, more than 30 hours had passed between individuals being booked into the jail, online records show.
— Journal-World public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this report.
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Related coverage: Douglas County Jail
• Jan. 16, 2019: Cost estimate for pared-down Douglas County Jail expansion is $23M
• March 3, 2018: Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion