Douglas County commissioners say they also need state lawmakers to help address jail population issues

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

The Douglas County Commission meets during on online video conference on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

While the Douglas County Commission has recently challenged local criminal justice leaders to find ways to decrease their usage of the county jail, the commissioners on Wednesday said they need to also challenge state lawmakers.

“This all starts in Topeka,” Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said. “Even the criminal justice folks here in Douglas County don’t make the laws. They are just working with what they can work with.”

The commission recently began calling on the local criminal justice entities — such as the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County District Court — to find ways to reduce the amount of people they are booking into the jail, as the facility is facing a looming inmate population crisis because of the coronavirus pandemic.

During their meeting on Wednesday, the commissioners said they will still need to continue applying pressure on the local leaders to find new solutions while also branching out to the state leaders.

“There is part of me that is very hopeful, in light of our current affairs, somebody in Topeka is going to take justice reform seriously and start that conversation,” Derusseau said. “Maybe somebody there will finally step up and see that there needs to be some changes made.”

It’s unclear if the state lawmakers could help the jail’s looming crisis, though. The Kansas Legislature will not convene for another legislative session until January, well after the county expects the inmate population to become a crisis.

During the meeting, commissioners also mentioned some ideas on what they believe could help address overcrowding at the jail, noting they are willing to fund new programs if it will help decrease the jail’s inmate population.

Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said he wondered if the court system could hire another judge, which would help increase the amount of cases that are processed at the court and possibly decrease the amount of time people are housed in the jail while they wait for court appearances. Derusseau suggested the local justice system could increase its utilization of house arrests and GPS monitoring systems rather than booking people into the jail who miss court dates.

In the meantime, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said she and Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer are continuing to meet with the local criminal justice leaders to discuss solutions.

The jail has been a hot topic for the commission in recent weeks. On June 3, the commissioners had a brief discussion on the topic and came to a consensus to reexamine the viability of the controversial $29.6 million expansion project because the circumstances around it have changed. Specifically, the jail has seen a significant drop in the inmate population in recent months, and the county will likely see a decline in the sales tax revenues that would be used to pay for the project, both of which are believed to be caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, as the commissioners discussed on Wednesday, the jail is also facing a looming inmate population crisis because of the pandemic. As more restaurants and bars begin to reopen and many people begin to return to work after stay-at-home orders were lifted, Brouwer said last week he expects arrests will begin to rise again, too.

That could cause more issues for the jail, which has been working to make sure inmates are safe during the pandemic. Capt. Wes Houk, a jail administrator for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail had to rearrange the facility to make sure inmates were safe from contracting the virus. That has decreased the functional capacity of the facility from 164 inmates down to 150-155 inmates. He also noted the pandemic has led to other county jails no longer allowing Douglas County to house inmates in their facilities, which has been a common practice for Douglas County to address overcrowding in its jail.

While the commissioners in January approved a jail expansion project to address overcrowding issues, Brouwer said the project is irrelevant to the current crisis because expansion could not happen quickly enough to help. But if solutions are found to address the crisis, it could also mean the county’s plan for expanding the jail will no longer be needed, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said on Wednesday.

“This is our best opportunity to take this crisis and turn it into a radical shift in how our community is doing things and maybe save our community from having to pay for a revision and expansion of the jail,” she 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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