New district attorney, sheriff explain their early priorities; diversion programs, jail changes on the to-do list
photo by: Meeting screenshot/CJCC
Douglas County’s new law enforcement leaders shared their to-do list with other local criminal justice officials on Tuesday, and they’re envisioning new diversion programs for defendants, making better use of space in the county jail and a variety of other criminal justice reforms.
District Attorney Suzanne Valdez and Sheriff Jay Armbrister were both sworn in on Monday after being elected in November. Both had already been in talks with the staff of the offices they were going to lead before they were sworn in, and on Tuesday they shared with the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council the first projects that they would be working on.
Armbrister’s immediate plans mainly focus on conditions at the Douglas County Jail. Overcrowding has been a problem for several years at the jail, and Armbrister said that now that the county was no longer pursuing an expansion of the facility, he intended to work on several solutions that could help alleviate the issue.
While the facility has 186 beds, its functional capacity is closer to 150 inmates because of the way it is organized, Armbrister said. For instance, some jail cells are made to house minimum security inmates, so they are not useful when the jail has an influx of maximum security inmates.
To address this, Armbrister said he wanted to reorganize the jail configuration, such as using the area that currently houses work-release inmates for other purposes. He also said he wanted the work release program, which allows inmates to leave the jail regularly to work at jobs in the community, to be moved out of the jail permanently. One way to do that might be to establish a civilian-run housing facility where work-release inmates could live when they’re not working, Armbrister said.
He also said he wants to use reorganization to address equity issues among male and female inmates. While male inmates in minimum security can receive up to 14 hours a day out of their cells, female inmates in minimum security only get up to four hours a day. As the Journal-World has previously reported, the portion of the jail for male inmates includes pods with varying levels of supervision, while the portion for female inmates places the inmates all in the same pod, which leads to the discrepancy.
“It’s flat unfair,” Armbrister said. “I want to look at how we can move things around, but staying within our parameters.”
Armbrister also had a more ambitious project in mind — working with the county and its partners to develop a new campus that bridges the gap between the criminal justice system and emergency housing. While he doesn’t have a defined plan yet, he said he had an idea to create a campus that would be centered on the jail and the nearby Lawrence Community Shelter, and then creating a new county agency focused on several areas of support, such mental health, housing and domestic violence.
He acknowledged that such a plan would be a long-term effort — estimating that it could take up to 15 years to complete — but he also said that if the county was interested in it, the work would need to begin as soon as possible.
County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said some projects are already underway to address those issues, including the behavioral health crisis and recovery center that’s currently under construction. But she said Armbrister’s ideas could build on that.
“I think Sheriff Armbrister has a vision on how we can extend that work further,” Plinsky said. “Douglas County has positioned itself to be a leader and strategist in this field. I think this is the next evolution of the work we’ve been doing … to really provide enhanced services in our community.”
Valdez, meanwhile, is planning to streamline the county’s alternatives to incarceration, including the behavioral health court and drug court. She said new Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden would be overseeing most of those efforts.
Seiden told the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that he would be leading a unit that would administer all of those programs under one umbrella. Previously, they had been managed by separate departments.
Seiden will also help implement a new diversion program, Valdez said. She said she hoped the program would be unveiled in the near future, but neither she nor Seiden had many details to share about how it would work. Seiden called it an “enhanced” diversion program and said it would be implemented alongside the existing diversion program instead of replacing it.
“We want the applicants and participants in these programs to know we are truly investing in people,” Seiden said. “We believe that it is important to the community that we help facilitate people (to) get to the services that they need.”
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