Editorial: County commissioners exercised good leadership in hitting pause on jail expansion

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Moments and monumental decisions can be tough partners. That is why it is wise to exercise caution when making big decisions in the heat of a moment.

Douglas County commissioners deserve credit for coming to that conclusion about a proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

When it comes to living with the pandemic, we are in a moment. We are operating with bad information because it is the best information we have. The already tricky business of predicting the future has become more perilous as a result. We can’t halt the world and all of the decisions it requires each day, but we can try to limit the number of decisions we make that are difficult to unwind.

It certainly would be tough to undo an approximately $30 million expansion of the jail. If commissioners did push ahead with this project only to find that the world has permanently changed on how it incarcerates individuals, there would be a tremendous loss of trust in Douglas County government.

Opponents of the jail expansion, though, also should be mindful that we are living in a moment that is subject to change at any time. There is no guarantee that the lower incarceration levels that are happening today in Douglas County will continue in the future. It is quite possible that once we get through this pandemic period the same old pressures to expand the jail will re-emerge. Opponents should not confuse this delay as a sign of victory that they have convinced county leaders — or even the majority of the general public — that the local judicial system was being negligent in how it determines who should be incarcerated.

That case remains unproven, but with the most competitive races in more than a decade for district attorney and sheriff pending, we should all expect it to be vigorously argued.

That’s good. The public should really thrash out this issue of a jail expansion and incarceration policies. Voters in 2018 rejected a sales tax that would have partially been devoted to the jail expansion. Given that county commissioners are trying to do the jail expansion without a direct vote of the public, it is understandable that many voters will use the upcoming election as a proxy on the issue.

That’s another reason to delay the project. We are assured of having a new sheriff. It is best to let the new officeholder weigh in on the project before it advances too far. It make sense for 2021 and 2022 to be the key years for jail expansion issues. The new sheriff will be approaching only the halfway point of his term, and the County Commission will have only one of its three seats up for election, whereas today it has two seats being contested. The next two years will have greater continuity in leadership.

It all adds up to county commissioners making a wise decision last Wednesday to rethink their position on the jail. It is not easy to make such a decision after expending such time and emotion on a project. But it is good leadership to do so. Commissioners should be commended for exercising it.

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