Douglas County Commission to receive update on reducing jail population

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

The Douglas County Commission will again consider solutions to a possible looming population crisis at the county jail.

Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer said in a memo to the commissioners that he continued to meet with local criminal justice leaders to discuss how to decrease jail use. During the commission’s meeting on Wednesday, Brouwer is expected to update the commissioners on the status of those discussions.

The jail has been a hot topic for the commission in recent weeks. On June 3, commissioners agreed to reexamine the viability of the controversial $29.6 million expansion project because of changed circumstances. Specifically, on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic, the jail has seen a significant drop in inmates in recent months, and the county will likely see a decline in sales tax revenues that would be used to pay for the project.

Additionally, as more restaurants and bars begin to reopen and many people return to work, arrests are expected to increase, adding to the inmate population, Brouwer recently said.

That could cause more issues for the jail, which has been working to ensure that 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 help keep inmates safe. That has decreased the functional capacity of the jail from 164 inmates to 150-155 inmates. He also noted that 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 reduce crowding.

While the commissioners in January approved a jail expansion project to address overcrowding, Brouwer said the project was irrelevant to current issues because expansion could not happen quickly enough to help. Earlier this month, when criminal justice leaders first discussed the topic with the commissioners, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and Chief Judge James McCabria said they were low on new solutions.

But if solutions are found to address current issues, the county’s plan for expanding the jail may no longer be needed, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said last week.

“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.

In other business, the commissioners will consider authorizing the creation of Consolidated Fire District No. 1, which would finalize a two-step process of consolidating fire districts and township fire departments into one fire district that would cover the majority of the rural area of the county.

The item is scheduled in the meeting’s consent agenda, which allows the commission to consider and approve several items in one motion, unless a commissioner or member of the public asks to pull an item for discussion.

The commissioners gave initial approval to the merger when it approved consolidating the recently created Fire District No. 6, with Fire District No. 1, which serves the Lecompton Township, and Fire District No. 4, which serves the northern part of Marion Township. Fire District No. 6, the first phase of the consolidation project, was created by consolidating four township fire departments — Clinton, Eudora, Kanwaka and Wakarusa — in early April.

The commissioners will also meet for a work session to discuss preliminary plans to expand the scope of a behavioral health crisis response team, which is currently housed in LMH Health’s emergency department. The county’s behavioral health partners want to expand the team’s role to work in the community in preparation for the 2021 opening of the county’s planned behavioral health crisis center.

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, Residents may also call in and listen by phone by dialing 1-312-626-6799 and entering meeting ID 951-1088-2879.

The commission was originally expected to resume meeting in person on Wednesday, but the commission delayed taking that step after the county extended Phase 3 of its reopening plan for two more weeks. 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.

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

• June 17, 2020 — Douglas County commissioners say they also need state lawmakers to help address jail population issues

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