Democratic candidates for Douglas County Commission all voice opposition to planned jail expansion

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

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

Five Democratic candidates running for two Douglas County Commission seats all expressed a level of opposition to the county’s controversial jail expansion project during a candidate forum hosted Tuesday by the local Democratic Party.

Where the candidates differed was how they wanted to address the issue of overcrowding in the jail without the expansion.

Three Democratic candidates — Shannon Reid, Sara Taliaferro and incumbent Nancy Thellman — are running for the 2nd District seat, which represents the eastern side of the county. Two Democratic candidates — Shannon Portillo and Karen Willey — are running for the 3rd District seat, which represents the western side of the county.

Some candidates said the coronavirus pandemic has changed the reality of the expansion project and has led to the opportunity to find new solutions for overcrowding at the jail, while others argued the expansion project was never needed.

“We knew well before the pandemic that there were other alternatives to incarceration and jail expansion was not the right choice for Douglas County,” said Portillo, a University of Kansas administrator and associate professor who has studied criminal justice. “I think it’s incredibly important for us to bring evidence-based reforms and focus on rehabilitation as our criminal justice strategy.”

In the 2nd District discussion, Thellman, who voted to approve the jail expansion in January, said she has reconsidered the issue because of the decrease in jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic and the recent focus on racial disparities in America brought on by the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“It has caused me to think twice about the county jail expansion … because this is a really remarkable moment and an opportunity for change,” Thellman said.

Thellman said the commission has been working on alternatives to incarceration, noting the county has installed several programs like pretrial release and specialty courts for behavioral health and drug use in recent years. She also noted that the jail currently operates a reentry program that has provided good results.

But to address the issue further, Thellman said the commission will need to work with outside groups to decrease the amount of people who are put in jail. Those groups include the Lawrence Police Department, which is the primary user of the jail, and state legislators, who craft the laws that result in people being incarcerated.

Conversation with Democratic Candidates for Douglas County Commissioner

Reid, a coordinator for Willow Domestic Violence Center, said she believes the county needs to further invest in alternative programs to address overcrowding issues at the jail. In the past, she said so much effort has been put toward fighting the expansion project that there has not been enough effort to establish meaningful alternatives to incarceration.

Reid said she also wants to shift more money, including the nearly $30 million earmarked for the jail expansion, into services that provide affordable housing. She said the County Commission should look for every possible chance to create housing for people.

“Without housing that is safe and sustainable for individuals and families in our community, there is nothing to build up from,” she said. “That’s too much survival and instability to have to navigate.”

Taliaferro, a natural science illustrator, said the commission needs “a complete reset” on the jail issue. She said the original plan for the expansion — which was voted down in 2018 — was wrapped up with the proposed behavioral health crisis center, which obscured discussions on the topic.

“I think there (have) been all kinds of missed opportunities along the way to learn from people who had perspectives different from the ones held by our leaders,” she said.

Taliaferro said more should have been invested in affordable housing and mental health initiatives before the commission considered a jail expansion. She also said the county needs to give more time for the current alternative programs to become established and provide results.

“I will continue to vote no for jail expansion, because I believe investments in our communities will render that unnecessary,” she said.

In the 3rd District discussion, Portillo said she would push back plans for jail expansion, focusing instead on more alternative programs. Echoing Thellman, she said the jail’s in-house reentry program has provided good results, but that the county also needs more preventive community programs that help keep people from entering the jail in the first place.

“We need to continue to invest in these alternatives, and we need to continue to invest in our community,” she said.

Willey, a farmer and current member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission, said COVID-19 has put the jail’s inmate population at such a crisis point that the county now has the opportunity to find new solutions to overcrowding that would make the jail expansion project irrelevant.

She said the many alternative programs that have already been put in place were “low-hanging fruit,” and the commissioners must now look to harder-to-find alternative solutions to decrease the inmate population. One solution she noted would be looking for ways to speed up court processing times so the county can decrease the amount of time people who are booked into jail spend there.

“We need creative solutions now, and we don’t have time to wait,” Willey said.

Related coverage:

• June 3, 2020 — Noting change in circumstances, Douglas County Commission wants new discussions on plan to expand jail

• June 9, 2020 — Local criminal justice leader says COVID-19 could cause a jail population crisis

• June 10, 2020 — As jail faces looming inmate population crisis, criminal justice leaders say they don’t have many options left to decrease usage

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