Representatives of four activist groups crowded the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse Saturday to kick off their joint campaign against a proposed expansion of the county jail and a referendum on a sales tax that would fund it.
"We are planning a comprehensive campaign with many partners right up to that mail-in ballot," said Ted Mosher, co-chairman of the Lawrence faith-based activist group Justice Matters.
Justice Matters is one of the four groups behind the campaign, which the activists are calling "Jail No." The other partners — the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, the social justice advocacy group Kansas Appleseed and the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance — also turned out Saturday to speak against the jail expansion and the half-cent sales tax.
If voters approve the sales tax, it will generate an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund construction of the $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million behavioral health campus. It would also provide $5.1 million a year for new behavioral health programming and $1 million of the $6.1 million needed per year to operate an expanded jail.
Patrick Wilbur, of the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, objected to using sales tax as a funding source. He said it was the most regressive way to pay for the project because it would force low-income residents to pay more for food and other necessities.
He also took a swipe at the referendum’s ballot language, noting it didn’t mention the property tax increases that would needed to pay for additional operational costs associated with the jail expansion. The total cost of the expansion for the next 20 years would be $165 million, he said.
Mosher said the Justice Matters board voted unanimously to oppose the referendum. It was a tough decision, he said, because Justice Matters supports the behavioral health initiatives the sales tax would fund, but the board ultimately decided it couldn’t support any measure that would allow for the incarceration of more Douglas County residents.
Kansas Appleseed and the NAACP also had concerns about incarceration rates.
Kansas Appleseed juvenile justice advocate Mike Fonkert noted that the number of people incarcerated in the county started to grow rapidly in 2015. The jail's daily population grew from about 148 in March 2015 to 238 in October 2015. He said unless the county conducted a data-driven review to determine the root cause of the population increase, the new beds would soon be filled and the county would be seeking another expansion.
And Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence NAACP, recalled that her group had raised concerns about the number of people of color in the jail when the Douglas County Commission appointed a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council two years ago. She said the NAACP's opposition to the project stemmed from the lack of progress she had seen in that area.
“The Lawrence branch of the NAACP believes there should be no jail expansion until there has been substantial progress in reducing racial disparities at the jail,” she said.
Mosher, Wilbur and Fonkert all said they supported the development of more behavioral health projects and emphasized that there would be alternative ways the county could fund the initiatives should the added sales tax authority be voted down. However, county leaders have said that although they will use property tax to fund the jail expansion if the referendum fails, they have no plans to do the same for the behavioral health projects.
Ballots for the referendum will be mailed April 25 and counted May 15.
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• March 22, 2018 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21, 2018 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12, 2018 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority