Group wants Douglas County to let it finish studies before authorizing jail expansion

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

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

A group that opposes the planned expansion of the Douglas County Jail is pursuing two studies that it believes will identify underlying issues contributing to overpopulation of the jail.

Leaders of the faith-based activist group Justice Matters told the Journal-World recently that they wanted county leaders to wait until those studies are completed before they consider giving final approval to a $29.6 million expansion plan.

The group hopes the studies will provide more methods to reduce the inmate population at the jail, which has been facing an overcrowding issue for years. As of Friday, the jail had 40 inmates being housed outside of Douglas County, according to its weekly jail statistics.

“We firmly believe before we take any further steps on expanding the jail, we have to have a comprehensive analysis of all the factors at play,” said Aileen Ball, co-president of Justice Matters.

However, it is unlikely the county will wait. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky recently said she planned for the Douglas County Commission to consider authorizing the expansion project during its meeting on Wednesday.

Additionally, when asked about the group’s request, Douglas County’s criminal justice coordinator, Mike Brouwer, seemed to dismiss it. He told the Journal-World in an email that the county had conducted several studies and had received expert input on the issue since 2015.

“Douglas County has done numerous studies, is currently conducting studies, and will continue to study criminal justice data to improve services,” Brouwer said in the email.

The two studies Justice Matters is pursuing seek to identify issues that contribute to incarceration growth and to identify gaps in service that could be improved to help fix the problem, Ball said.

The first study, known as the Risk Needs Responsivity study, is being conducted by Danielle Rudes, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University. Rudes said the RNR study builds a tool that helps identify programs that are most likely to reduce the recidivism rate of offenders.

Using that tool, the study could then create a “gap analysis,” which would show specific areas of criminal activity – such as a large number of people committing substance abuse crimes — that may need more investment to address, she said.

“It creates a theoretical explanation as to why the numbers might be increasing for the people entering jail, for the number of people that services are not available for, and what needs are not being met,” Rudes said.

Justice Matters proposed the RNR study to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in June 2019, but the council did not pursue it. Without the CJCC’s participation, Ball said Justice Matters funded the study itself. Rudes said she intended to have a final report to the organization in April.

The second study, which would be conducted by Jasmine Heiss of the Vera Institute of Justice, has not yet begun. Heiss said she filed an open records request to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for a large data set about the jail’s inmate population. She said she would review the data to understand why and how long people are incarcerated to help get a “robust and complete picture” of what’s driving the jail population overpopulation.

But Heiss said the sheriff’s office denied her request. She said the office told her the collection of the requested data set would cause too much of a burden on the office’s staff.

Jenn Hethcoat, a public information officer for the sheriff’s office, confirmed that the request was denied. She said the institute requested extensive data in a specific format that is outside of the office’s normal data collection practices, which would have required “a prolonged period of dedicated staff time.”

“We still really want to do this work, and we think it is important,” Heiss said. “We think when a county makes a huge and consequential (decision) to invest in a bigger jail that first they should understand what is driving the jail population.”

When asked about the Justice Matters studies, Brouwer suggested that the county did not think they were relevant. He said the CJCC did not pursue the RNR study because it thought the study would analyze only programs that were not related to jail population.

“These programs involve individuals who have already been sentenced and who are not sentenced to the Douglas County Correctional Facility,” he said, meaning they are not part of the overcrowding issue at the jail.

Rudes did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for comment on Brouwer’s claim.

Brouwer also said the county has already conducted a study on the data that the Vera Institute requested from the sheriff’s office, which resulted in a report from Allen Beck, of Kansas City, Mo.-based Justice Concepts Inc., in 2018.

That report included recommendations that Robert Bieniecki, who was the criminal justice coordinator at the time, said could improve the county’s processing of criminal cases, which could serve as a method to help alleviate overcrowding at the jail, according to previous Journal-World reporting.

Brouwer said Friday that some of Beck’s recommendations have been implemented, such as a new software system for the pretrial release program, and work is continuing on the others.

The county in recent years has also launched several other alternative programs to incarceration — including pretrial release, house arrest, the behavioral health court and others — which has led to a decrease in jail population but did not completely solve the issue.

“Douglas County’s work on criminal justice will be ongoing,” Brouwer said. “We will continue to look for ways to improve the system.”

Justice Matters has previously argued that the county has not given enough time for the alternative programs to develop.

Ball also said the group thought the county would point to its earlier studies as a reason for not considering Justice Matters’ recent proposals. But she said the organization believed more research could and should be done.

“The studies that have been conducted (by the county) are probably an important first step and the tip of the iceberg,” Ball said. “(When) you continually refuse the analysis and suppress the analysis, it starts to feel like a stunning lack of curiosity to why these things are happening.”

In May 2018, Douglas County voters rejected a measure that would have authorized a countywide half-cent sales tax increase, which would have funded a $44 million expansion of the county jail, including the addition of 178 beds.

The current iteration of the project, costing approximately $30 million, would provide between 84 and 112 new beds and does not require voter approval. It would be financed partially through cash that the county has on hand and partially through a bond issue.

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