Douglas County Commission candidates say criminal justice reform is now needed after jail expansion project was discontinued
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
While the current Douglas County Commission has discontinued its plan to expand the county jail, candidates vying to fill two of the three seats on the commission say the work on criminal justice is not finished.
Opposing candidates running for the open 3rd District seat of the County Commission — Democratic candidate Shannon Portillo and Republican candidate Pam McDermott — both recently told the Journal-World that the commission must now focus on a plan for criminal justice reform.
“I’m thrilled that the current Commission withdrew the resolution to move forward with the jail expansion, and we still have a lot of work to do as far as criminal justice reform,” Portillo said in an email. “We need to continue working on alternatives to incarceration.”
McDermott shared the same sentiment, calling for changes throughout the criminal justice system.
“Above all, we need to work together and collaborate much better at all levels,” she said.
Additionally, 2nd District candidate Shannon Reid, who recently defeated incumbent Commissioner Nancy Thellman in the Democratic primary election, said she also wanted to make changes to the criminal justice system, including advocating for the addition of a public defender office in Douglas County.
While Reid is expected to win the 2nd District seat, she technically is facing a Republican opponent in the November general election. However, the candidate, Brett LaRue, said in June he would not campaign for the position and endorsed Thellman in the Democratic primary.
But after Thellman lost to Reid, LaRue did not commit to staying out of the race. As of Friday, LaRue had not responded to the Journal-World’s repeated requests for clarification on the state of his campaign. Additionally, Reid said LaRue had not responded to her requests either.
LaRue, a retired law enforcement officer, previously said he also opposed the jail expansion project and he believed the county needed to invest in addressing mental health issues in the community instead, the Journal-World has reported.
Regardless of who wins the two seats in the general election, it appears criminal justice reform will be an important topic for the future County Commission.
“Now that the jail expansion project is over, I believe Douglas County as a whole can move forward on more substantive ideas when it comes to our local criminal legal systems,” Reid said.
Despite being opponents for the 3rd District seat, Portillo’s and McDermott’s views on criminal justice are practically identical. Additionally, they have both worked with the faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters, which has long opposed the expansion of the jail.
They both told the Journal-World they believed the County Commission should explore a study previously offered to the county by the Vera Institute of Justice to explore more alternatives to incarceration. In January, a week prior to the County Commission approving its plan for expansion, Justice Matters said it had offered the Vera Institute study, which would have reviewed county data to understand what’s driving the jail inmate population.
McDermott and Portillo said they thought the county could and should still consider the study.
“This would provide us with a dashboard and data to know exactly who is in our jail,” McDermott said. “The first and most obvious benefit of this is that we would know exactly who is in our jail and where we need to invest resources,” she added, noting it could help expand already existing alternative programs like the county’s drug and behavioral health courts.
Portillo, who studies criminal justice as part of her work for the University of Kansas, said she too would like the Vera Institute study to be conducted. But she also wants the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes County Commission representation, to work with the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office on bail reform.
Portillo is also a co-chair of Gov. Laura Kelly’s commission on racial equity and justice, the Journal-World has reported. She said the group would be releasing recommendations to local governments in the near future that she thinks will be useful for these issues in Douglas County.
Meanwhile, Reid said that along with a public defender office — which could help increase the county’s efficiency in working criminal cases, thus helping decrease the number of people who are held in jail for pending cases — she also wants to expand the county’s partnerships with community organizations that provide “front-line prevention work” to keep people healthy and out of jail. An example of the partnerships the county currently has includes working with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, which is helping the county to establish a mental health crisis center.
In January, the County Commission unanimously approved a resolution that authorized a $29.6 million expansion of the jail, which would have added up to 112 beds to help alleviate crowding issues at the facility. However, the project had drawn criticism over the past several years from many area residents and groups who pushed instead for alternatives to incarceration.
Months later, as the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a significant decline in the facility’s inmate population, the County Commission chose to discontinue the controversial project. On Sept. 23, the commissioners unanimously voted to revoke the resolution they approved in January, the Journal-World reported.
But crowding issues still exist at the facility. In July, Capt. Stacy Simmons of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office reported to the County Commission that the facility had reached “functional capacity” with just about 125 inmates. While the facility has 186 beds, Simmons said there were many open beds but they could not be used for maximum and minimum security inmates. Instead, they were dedicated to low-security inmates.
At the time, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the county might need to consider remodeling the jail to allow for more functional and secure beds.
“As the jail becomes less full of people who are minimum security and who can be out in the community on work release, is it a possibility to retrofit or to remodel the jail inside its existing footprint to have more secure spaces?” Plinsky said. “(That’s) a question I think will come back to the commission at some point.”
When asked in September about the possibility of such a project, Plinsky told the Journal-World the county has not conducted any further work on it. She said the County Commission would need to direct staff to do so.
But it’s an idea the candidates seem to support. Portillo said if the county is going to focus on keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail and reducing the use of the facility for individuals awaiting trial, the County Commission and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office may need to reconfigure the space to support those efforts.
She also said the county still needs to address maintenance issues at the jail. As part of the original plan for the jail expansion, the County Commission included a $1.5 million improvement to the facility’s central heating and cooling plant. But with the overall plan called off, that renovation has also been discontinued. Portillo said she wants to work with Jay Armbrister, the presumed sheriff-elect, to address those issues.
Reid agreed about the maintenance renovations, noting the county could use some of the $9 million that was set aside for the expansion project but is now presumably not being considered for anything specific.
“It is our responsibility to ensure the facility has a healthy HVAC system and safer elevator operations. Those are acute needs that must be addressed and that do not impact our jail’s size,” she said.
However, Reid did not respond to the Journal-World’s question about the possibility of reconfiguring the jail.
McDermott said she doesn’t oppose renovations to the jail, but she believes the county must do its due diligence in studying criminal justice before making major changes.
“I simply want to do things in the right order and not put the cart before the horse,” she said. “I want the analysis of the criminal system done before we do major remodeling, and I think it’s so unfortunate this has still not happened.”
• Sept. 23, 2020 — Douglas County Commission nixes jail expansion plans in 3-0 vote
Contact Dylan Lysen
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact reporter Dylan Lysen: