Noting change in circumstances, Douglas County Commission wants new discussions on plan to expand jail

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

The Douglas County Commission meets through an online video conference on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

The Douglas County Commission will soon begin discussions to further explore the viability of its plan to expand its jail.

During their meeting on Wednesday, the commissioners came to a consensus to have further discussions on the controversial project, noting they believe the circumstances around the planned $29.6 million expansion have changed in the last couple of months during the coronavirus pandemic.

The call for more discussions comes a day after members of the Lawrence City Commission said their approval of a permit for the plan was “not an endorsement.”

All three commissioners — Michelle Derusseau, Patrick Kelly and Nancy Thellman — voted to approve the expansion project in January. However, Kelly said Wednesday that the reality of the project has changed since that vote, including the significant drop in the jail’s inmate population and the likely decline in the county’s sales tax revenues, both of which are believed to be caused by the pandemic.

“We’re really in a different place than we were in January when we talked about the jail and made that decision,” he said. “A number of events — not just COVID-19 — have happened that have begun to influence my thinking on jail expansion.”

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said she is working to schedule meetings for the commissioners to ask new questions in regard to the project, including meetings with county and city agencies about their use of the facility.

Kelly said he specifically wants to have further discussions with officials from the Lawrence Police Department, the Lawrence Municipal Court and the Lawrence City Commission about the project. He said the City Commission’s stance on Tuesday had an impact on him, but he also noted the Lawrence Police Department and municipal court are the largest users of the facility.

“If the Lawrence City Commission — and by connection their employees through the Lawrence Police Department and municipal court — are not supportive of a jail expansion, we need to hear how they plan to limit the number of people who are sent and held in jail,” Kelly said.

As of Wednesday, the jail’s population has fallen to 134 inmates, with another 10 inmates housed out of county and another two listed as temporarily out, according to statistics on the jail’s website. At other points during the state’s stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, the population fell even lower.

Prior to the state’s orders in March, the jail had 176 inmates, with 25 housed out of county, according to the jail’s March 13 statistics. The facility currently has 186 beds for inmates and the county’s expansion plan calls for adding up to 112 beds.

Kelly said the drop in inmate population coincides with the Lawrence Police Department booking fewer inmates in recent months. But the county is unaware of the City Commission or the police department taking any specific actions to curb the amount of bookings, he said. A question he wants answered is how city officials will collect data so they can better understand why the decrease in bookings is happening.

Derusseau and Thellman agreed with Kelly. Derusseau, who appeared frustrated by the City Commission’s actions on Tuesday, said she wants to know how the number of inmates can be kept below the jail’s current capacity in the future, but the county will need the city’s help to figure that out.

“When the highest utilizer of (the jail) does not support it, then they need to be part of the solution,” Derusseau said. “Be a partner in it rather than standing back and pointing fingers.”

Thellman said she was glad to have the “unexpected moment” to acknowledge the circumstances around the project appear to have changed. She said the commissioners need to move forward on the conversation with transparency and integrity while keeping Douglas County residents’ best interest in heart.

“It makes me hopeful that if we had this wrong, we own it and fix it,” Thellman said.

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