Check out the story of our "Jail No" campaign on YouTube here:
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, the work to reduce our community's overreliance on incarceration is not over. Justice Matters' Jail Alternatives Committee has shifted its focus to promoting policies and programs to 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.
Justice Matters worked closely for several years with the Vera Institute of Justice — the preeminent expert on criminal justice reform research and policy in the country — and facilitated the local relationship-building and data-gathering they needed to produce a comprehensive study of the Douglas County Jail population. Vera completed their work on that study and released it to the public in December 2022. You can read the full report here. It includes many alarming findings about our jail, including that the main driver of jail bookings is failure to appear in court. 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.
In January 2023, we held a community meeting at the Lawrence Public Library to share key takeaways from the report with the general public and push local criminal justice decision-makers to take action on its recommendations. The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council now has workgroups that are tackling priorities identified from the report, including reducing failure to appear and probation violations, a regular jail review process, and addressing racial disparities in arrests and jail bookings. We are thrilled about this progress! We will continue to monitor implementation of Vera's recommendations and push our community to invest in common-sense reforms and eliminate the misuse of our jail.