Growing Incarceration at the Douglas County Jail

The Douglas County jail is presently overcrowded. There are two options to resolve this situation (or a combination of both):

  1. Build a bigger jail
  2. Address the reasons why people are in jail

Option 1: A Bigger Jail

Treanor Architects have presented the County with a $46,000,000 jail expansion plan (excluding service on the debt) plus annual operational cost of $6,100,00/year. This plan will nearly double the capacity to lock up more people, adding 179 beds to the existing 187-bed facility.

National research into the growth of jails reveals troubling trends that suggest that a study would be prudent in Douglas County:

  • There is little causal connection between improved public safety and an increased use of incarceration[i]
  • Nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses[ii]
  • No matter how disadvantaged people are when they enter jail, they are likely to emerge with their lives further destabilized and, therefore, less able to be healthy, contributing members of society[iii]

Option 2: Address the reasons why people are in jail

Jail experts hired by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have assisted counties across the country to scale back and improve how their local jail is being used. These experts understand what drives growth and have a track record of bringing leaders together to find safe, effective alternatives to incarceration. In the face of momentum to spend $30 million on a bigger jail, a commitment to alternatives will take a leadership and vision in Douglas County.

Justice Matters' Recommendations to deal with Jail Overcrowding include:

1.    Establish a Mental Health Crisis Center now.
  • The Mental Health Crisis Center plans are ready, stakeholders are invested, and the community widely supports its creation now.
  • It is unjust to delay this much-needed resource for those in our community who are sick and desperate for the services the Center will provide.
  • County governments are responsible by state statute for ensuring mental health treatment is available to all.

 2.    Separate the Crisis Center from the Jail Expansion Project in concept & on the ballot.

  • It is harmful for people who suffer from mental illness to be labeled as criminals. Choosing to conceptually define the system in such a way has a negative effect on persons with mental illness, their loved ones, and community health and safety in general.
  • The Crisis Center will primarily serve those who walk in of their own accord. It’s role as an alternative to incarceration, while important, will be a secondary function.
  • Connecting the Mental Health Crisis Center to the jail expansion will pressure working on the jail expansion to make expensive, long-term decisions before adequate research and processing have occurred.

 3.    Shift the focus of the Jail Expansion Project from "compassionate incarceration" to a more compassionate goal of increased public safety and diversion.

  • If we build a bigger jail, we will fill it. This will lead to harmful outcomes for vulnerable, nonviolent populations who would be better served through alternatives. It is more compassionate to start by minimizing contact with the criminal justice system.
  • The disproportionate number of African-Americans in our local criminal justice system is part of the historic tragedy of mass incarceration. The high volume of persons with mental illness in our local criminal justice system is part of the historic tragedy of de-institutionalization without the requisite resources to support them in community. The growing tragedy of incarcerating more and more women is steeped in trauma, addiction, mental health, and domestic violence. Use of our taxpayer money to broaden the reach of the criminal justice system to further these calamities makes us all complicit.
  • $44 million+ is a lot of money to spend on incarcerating more people. Consider: this same amount of money could be used to match nearly every penny the United Way of Douglas County spent on social services last year ($2 million) for the next 15 years.

In order to shift the focus:

4.    Immediately suspend all spending on building plans

  • Based on contracts between Douglas County and Treanor Architects, the county has already spent upwards of $695,150 to plan for jail expansion.  The more we spend traveling down this path, the more pressure there will be to move forward with an unjust and unnecessarily expensive project.

 5.    Hire the Justice Management Institute or the Vera Institute for Justice to conduct a full data-based analysis of our local criminal justice system.

Their expertise will enable us to determine:

  • How can we correct for the disproportionate number of racial minorities in our jail?
  • What is driving our recent spike in jail population?
  • What safe, effective and restorative alternatives are available to address our rising jail population especially among women, minorities, and persons with mental illness?

We could use their help because:

  • The Justice Management Institute is a technical advising firm that specializes in three areas our county needs: establishing highly effective Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils, addressing overrepresentation among minorities in the justice system, and jail overcrowding.
  • The Vera Institute of Justice is a technical advising firm that specializes in system-wide analysis to address jail overcrowding.
  • They have assisted counties across the country to alleviate jail overcrowding through safe, effective alternatives implemented at the local level (see the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge).

Note: Justice Matters sent preliminary proposals from the Vera Institute and Justice Management Institute to members of the County Commission and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in June. To date they have denied the need for such consultation.

 6.    Follow through on information gained in working with a consultant

  • Revise the Jail Expansion Project to promote alternatives to incarceration and free up funds for addressing root causes of crime such as unemployment, housing insecurity, drug addiction, and lack of adequate mental health care.
  • Implement alternatives to incarceration that will lead to better outcomes for potentially incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, and the community as a whole.
  • Conduct culture change trainings among all staff in the institutions that make up our local criminal justice system to encourage an embrace of policies, practices, and procedures that together will create a more restorative system.

To see the full report "Restorative Justice at Home: the case for safe, effective alternatives to incarceration in Douglas county", click here. 

To learn more about the adverse impact of jails and effective alternatives visit the MacArthur Safety and Justice program here.

[i] Doris J. James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004)

[ii] Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011); Don Stemen, Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime (New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2007). Also see J. Travis, B. Western, and S. Redburn, eds. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequence (Washington, DC: National Research Council, 2014)

[iii] A. L. Solomon, Life after lockup: Improving reentry from jail to the community (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, 2008), 15-24.