Local criminal justice leader says COVID-19 could cause a jail population crisis

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

Douglas County’s criminal justice coordinator says the county jail’s inmate population could become a crisis in the second half of the year because of COVID-19, and the County Commission will continue discussing what to do about it on Wednesday.

During Tuesday’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, the commissioners and justice system leaders started discussing how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has affected the jail, such as decreasing the amount of usable space for housing inmates. Coordinator Mike Brouwer characterized the jail’s projected inmate population for the second half of 2020 as an impending crisis, and although the county is already working on a $29.6 million project to expand the jail, Brouwer said that won’t address the issue.

“At this point, this is not about jail expansion because jail expansion would never happen soon enough to respond to COVID-19,” Brouwer said during the CJCC meeting. “We need a response now, and it needs to be an aggressive response.”

Because of COVID-19, jail leaders have had to reorganize the way the facility is used to mitigate the possibility of the virus spreading if an inmate were to become infected, said Capt. Wes Houk, a jail administrator with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. That has led to a decrease in functional space in the facility, meaning the jail’s inmate capacity has dropped.

Houk said the facility used to house 186 beds, but has lost 14 beds through the rearrangement, bringing it down to 172 beds. But that isn’t necessarily the jail’s functional capacity, Houk said, because it is a “direct supervision” facility, which leads to a safer environment when fewer beds are being used. Before the rearrangement, the jail was “functionally full” when 164 beds were being used, but with the rearrangement, the jail is now “functionally full” when between 150 and 155 beds are being used, Houk said.

While the jail has seen a significant decrease in inmate population during the pandemic, Brouwer said he expects to see a spike in jail bookings in June and July as more restaurants and bars open and people return to work. He said an increase in bookings will lead to the jail quickly reaching its new capacity limit. To address the impending problem, Brouwer and County Commission Chair Patrick Kelly challenged the criminal justice leaders to quickly consider new practices that may decrease their use of the jail.

On Wednesday, the commissioners will continue discussions on the topic in a work session. A work session allows the commissioners to discuss a topic at length prior to their regular business meeting. No official action is taken during a work session.

The discussion comes a week after the commissioners came to a consensus to hold further discussions on the viability of the county’s planned expansion of the jail. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said at the time that the meeting on Wednesday would be the first of at least two meetings to discuss the jail. She said she planned to schedule another meeting on the topic with City of Lawrence and Lawrence Police Department leaders in the near future.

Last week, after the City Commission granted the county a necessary permit for the controversial project but also said the action was “not an endorsement,” Kelly said he wanted further discussions with city leaders.

All three county commissioners — Michelle Derusseau, Nancy Thellman and Kelly — voted to approve the expansion project in January. However, Kelly said last week 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 stem from the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, the jail’s population had fallen to 139 inmates, with another nine inmates housed out of county and another three 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 was 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 county’s expansion plan calls for adding up to 112 beds to the jail.

In other business:

During the regular business meeting, the commissioners will consider approving a lease agreement with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to operate Transitions, the county’s transitional housing facility that is currently under construction at the Treatment and Recovery Campus of Douglas County in the 1000 block of West Second Street, just north of Bert Nash’s campus.

The construction of the housing is expected to be completed by the end of 2020 and it will begin serving clients in early 2021, according to a memo sent to the commissioners. The transitional housing is planned to be able to serve up to 12 clients, providing housing and supportive services in a therapeutic environment for six months to a year.

The commissioners will also consider providing a total of $53,000 to help continue Project Able, a housing program for chronically homeless individuals and families with disabilities in Douglas County. The funding would help support the program for a year, beginning July 1.

The County Commission will meet Wednesday through an online video conference at 4 p.m. for a work session and 5:30 p.m. for its regular business meeting. The meetings will be open to the walk-in public at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., but a link for the public to watch live online is available on the county’s website, douglascountyks.org. Residents may also call in and listen by phone by dialing 1-312-626-6799 and entering meeting ID 941-2939-9893.

Full audio from the meeting will continue to be posted on the county’s website, as usual. The meeting’s full agenda may also be found on the county’s website.

Contact Dylan Lysen

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