Justice Matters played a key role in halting a long and contentious effort to expand the local jail. In January of 2020, the County Commission voted unanimously to invest over $30 million in tax dollars in expanding the Douglas County Jail, despite strong public opposition to the project. The following month, Justice Matters filed a lawsuit against the county, calling into question the County Commission’s authority to bypass the decision of citizens who had voted down a jail expansion proposal just 10 months earlier. This legal action prevented the County from issuing debt to expand the jail. Then the pandemic hit, and contrary to the myths spread for years by the County about the inability to lower our jail population safely, the Douglas County Sheriff and the courts emptied the jail virtually overnight without any consequences for public safety. In September of 2020, the County Commission completely reversed their decision and voted unanimously to rescind their earlier resolution, laying to rest the jail expansion plans.
Even with the jail expansion off the table, our work is not over. We are now focused on promoting policies and programs that will reduce rates of incarceration, which have been growing steadily in Douglas County over the last decade even as crime rates have been trending downwards. We must also recognize and address the racism baked into our criminal justice system. The Douglas County Jail disproportionately incarcerates people of color, even more so than the already disturbing national average. Especially after witnessing the horrific murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests for racial justice this past year, we cannot turn a blind eye to stark racial disparities in our local justice system.
Justice Matters has been calling since 2015 for Douglas County to work with the Vera Institute of Justice, the preeminent expert on criminal justice reform research and policy in the country, to conduct a full analysis of the drivers of our jail population that will shed light on our inexplicable explosion in incarceration over the past decade. Vera’s analysis will help us to understand who is in our jail and why, and it will include recommendations on how resources and energy can be directed most efficiently to reduce our rates of incarceration. The Vera Institute has offered to provide this comprehensive study at no cost to the county and to assist with data extraction to minimize the workload for local criminal justice administrators. Sheriff Jay Armbrister and other public officials have publicly committed multiple times to collaborate with Vera on this project, but many months have passed since Vera’s initial offer and little progress has been made.
Justice Matters will continue to advocate for this important collaboration with Vera until the study is complete. We are committed to eliminating the misuse of the local jail and ending the criminalization of poverty and mental illness in our community. If you'd like to join us in ending the misuse of our jail, sign up to attend our Action Assembly on Monday, May 3rd.
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