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.
In 2021, Sheriff Jay Armbrister responded to Justice Matters' calls to work with the Vera Institute of Justice, the preeminent expert on criminal justice reform research and policy in the country. Douglas County shared the information needed for Vera to conduct a full analysis of the drivers of our jail population that has begun to shed light on our inexplicable explosion in incarceration over the past decade. Vera's findings showed that the number of bookings for failing to appear in court were through the roof- 1,532 in 2021. Booking people into jail for failing to appear in court has not been shown to improve public safety – it only derails people’s lives and increases their chances of further entanglement in the criminal justice system. Two reforms to avoid bookings for failure to appear recommended by Vera are:
1. Failure-to-appear rescheduling, so that when an officer discovers during a routine stop that someone has failed to appear in court, they automatically reschedule the court date and notify that person, rather than arresting them and booking them into jail.
2. Strong cite-and-release policies, compelling officers to issue citations instead of arresting people for low-level, nonviolent crimes such as trespassing or driving with an invalid license.
At the 2022 Action Assembly, we asked Sheriff Armbrister to initiate a collaborative effort with municipal & district court judges to establish a failure to appear rescheduling policy, strengthen cite & release practices, and track the progress- to be reported quarterly to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. He committed to do so, in front of the hundreds of people in attendance.
The Alternatives to Incarceration team is in continuing conversations with Sheriff Armbrister to track progress on his commitment. If you'd like to join us in ending the misuse of our jail, reach out to your team leader or contact [email protected]
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