As jail faces looming inmate population crisis, criminal justice leaders say they don’t have many options left to decrease usage

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

Douglas County Commissioners meet with criminal justice leaders through an online video conference call during a work session on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Criminal justice leaders have heard the call to find ways to decrease their usage of the Douglas County Jail, but finding new solutions so far has been a struggle.

District Attorney Charles Branson and Chief Judge James McCabria told County Commissioners during a Wednesday work session that they are running out of options to decrease the amount of people they are putting into the jail.

“I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little out of options, I think,” Branson said. “We’ve done about all we can to take pressure off the system from my office and the things I feel like I can affect.”

On Tuesday, Commission Chair Patrick Kelly challenged the criminal justice leaders to find new solutions after Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer explained a looming inmate capacity crisis at the jail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Branson on Wednesday said he took Kelly’s challenge seriously, but he noted Douglas County District Court has installed many programs in recent years — such as pretrial release and behavioral health and drug courts, among others — that have helped decrease the amount of people ending up in jail. Branson said those programs are in their infancy, and he believes they will help decrease the population further in the future, but they likely won’t help in the looming crisis.

On the judicial side of the court, McCabria said he met with the other judges Wednesday to discuss what more they could do to help address the issue, but they too do not have immediate suggestions.

“We tried to discuss some ideas, and we are looking, but in so many ways we are down to the bone when it comes to some of these things,” McCabria said.

Commissioners asked the criminal justice leaders, which also included representatives from the Lawrence Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, to return soon to discuss the topic further.

While the jail’s inmate population has decreased significantly during state’s stay-at-home orders in response to the pandemic, Brouwer said Tuesday he expects to see a spike in jail bookings as the restaurants and bars continue reopening and many people return to work, which would quickly bring the jail back up to its capacity limit.

The county is currently working on a $29.6 million plan to expand the jail, but Brouwer said that the expansion plan is irrelevant to the current crisis because it would not be built in time. Sheriff Ken McGovern on Wednesday echoed Brouwer’s comments when Kelly mentioned the possibility of new studies to research possible solutions.

“We’re at a critical stage now,” McGovern said. “We need help now.”

In other business:

During the regular business meeting, the commissioners approved 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 also approved 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 will help support the program for a year, beginning July 1.

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