October 26, 2016. Lawrence Journal-World.

Local interfaith coalition Justice Matters released a list of six recommendations Wednesday as part of a report on the county’s criminal justice reform plans, including calls for the immediate establishment of a crisis center and suspension of all funding for the proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

The group’s report argues that the county should explore programs that have proven safe and successful elsewhere before moving forward on the $30 million jail expansion project, said Ben MacConnell, the group’s lead organizer.

Topping the list of recommendations is a call for the county to immediately establish a mental health crisis intervention center. The current County Commission has included a center in its criminal justice reform plan, along with jail expansion and a behavioral health court.

Justice Matters also calls for the crisis center and jail expansion to be separated “in concept and on the ballot.”

As for the jail, Justice Matters recommends that the county shift its focus from incarceration to a “more compassionate goal of increased public safety and diversion,” and calls for all funding of the planning and design process for the jail expansion to be suspended.

The group is also recommending that the county hire consultants from the Vera Institute or the Justice Management Institute to conduct a “full data-based analysis of the local criminal justice system.” MacConnell said both consulting groups have a proven track record of addressing jail overcrowding and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

Proposals elsewhere in the report include more aggressive implementation of programs already in the county’s pipeline, such as the behavioral health court and a pre-trial monitoring program that supervises released inmates to ensure they make court dates. Also suggested are ideas the county has not yet considered, such as neighborhood courts that hand out community service sentences to those facing misdemeanor charges.

Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan said he always appreciates comment from residents, adding that the county has not done a good job of communicating its success of finding alternatives to incarceration, including diversions and a nationally recognized re-entry program.

Gaughan said the jail expansion was needed to ensure the safety of the inmates, end the $1 million-per-year expense of placing inmates in out-of-county jails, and improve programming for reducing recidivism. He remains equally committed to the crisis intervention center, he said.

“Ultimately, the County Commission will make its decisions based on the data and facts before us,” Gaughan said. “We have hired a full-time coordinator for the criminal justice coordinating council and are hiring a full-time data analyst. We will utilize the appropriate public safety and mental health expertise, including the expertise currently serving on the coordinating council, to help guide those decisions.”

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