Growing Incarceration at the Douglas County Jail

Our concerns regarding the expansion of the Douglas County Jail are many. Here are but a few: 


Who is in our jail and how long they stay is primarily determined by several local decision-makers (e.g., Lawrence Police Department, Douglas County Sheriff, District Attorney Charles Branson, District and Municipal Court judges, etc.).

But the primary decision making authority who will decide whether we expand the jail or invest in reforms and alternatives is the Douglas County Commission. We encourage all citizens to understand what's at stake and call on the Commission to put alternatives and reforms before expansion.  


Racial Inequality
The Douglas County jail disproportionately incarcerates more people of color than the national average. After the horrific murder of George Floyd, we must recognize that adding jail capacity without resolving the issues of racism baked into our system is a permanent investment that will inevitably lead to expanded inequality in our local criminal justice system.

Call on the Douglas County Commission to place a moratorium on jail expansion until the racial inequalities in our local criminal justice system are fixed.


Alternatives to Incarceration & Criminal Justice Reform
The Sheriff, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) staff, and the Douglas County Commissioners continue to define the jail problem in terms of overcrowding. This problem statement logically offers only one singular solution: a bigger jail.

But overcrowding is a symptom of more complicated, tougher problems:

  1. The rapid, inexplicable explosion in the number of people we incarcerate since 2013.
    The lack of viable, more effective alternatives to incarceration.
  2. Data analysis to address these three underlying problems which will in effect eliminate overcrowding have been offered and rejected by the CJCC and/or the County Commission.

Data analysis to address these underlying problems which will in effect eliminate overcrowding have been offered and rejected by the CJCC and/or the Douglas County Commission.

  1. Explosion in Incarceration & The Vera Institute - The CJCC rejected a full analysis into the drivers of jail population to be provided by any of the nationally recognized MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge consultants. The Vera Institute of Justice offered this analysis at no cost and it was rejected. Justice Matters has tried and failed to retrieve the necessary data from the Sheriff’s office to do the analysis. Again, June 10, 2020, the Vera Institute sent an offer to provide this analysis at no cost and assist with data extraction to minimize the workload for the Sheriff’s office.
  2. Alternatives to Incarceration & The Center for Achieving Correctional Excellence - The CJCC rejected a full analysis into alternatives including an “alternatives dashboard” to be used judges, defenders, and prosecutors to predict the best-case resolution for every single person who comes into contact with the system. We funded a partial analysis ourselves which highlight evidence-based gaps in alternatives, but did not provide access to their dashboard

A copy of the May 2020 analysis on Jail Alternatives can be seen/downloaded here.

Call on the Douglas County Commission to end continued funding of jail expansion (i.e., Turner Construction, Treanor Architect, etc.) and instead first and fully invest in experts who can provide data-driven actions to eliminate the misuse of jails.


Justice Matters and the Sunset Alliance with support from Kansas Appleseed filed a legal action on March 75, 2020 calling on the County Commission to give voters basic rights guaranteed in Kansas law when putting citizens in debt.

Under state law, if a construction project that requires new debt is not approved by the voters, local governments are required to give public notice of their intent to borrow the necessary money. This notice gives citizens the right to circulate a petition calling for a vote on the debt under consideration. In this case, if 2,500 signatures are collected in thirty days, then the question of debt to expand the jail must be approved during an election.

Douglas County Commissioners have indicated they will be using language from a ballot measure that was passed over twenty-five years ago (1994) to issue new debt on a jail expansion that the Douglas County citizens said they didn't want only two years ago.

The County Commission could decide to follow state law at any time. If they do, we will need to collect 2,500 signatures in less than 30 days. So Justice Matters launched a "petition-readiness" drive to collect pledges to sign the petition when it becomes available.

Pledging your signature is easy. All you have to do is send a text message to the number 33777. Just that five-digit number - 33777.

Then put the word democracy in as the text message. That word alone - democracy. Caps or no caps, it doesn't matter.

This will initiate a simple automated dialogue where you answer a few questions through your phone using text messages.

But let’s be clear, the Douglas County Commission have the power to give their constituents the right to circulate a petition. They could simply say to staff:

“The people of Douglas County voted jail expansion down in May 2018. Our constituents should have the basic right to a citizen petition on this item as defined in state law.”

Then, the staff would publish notice in the paper. We would obtain proper language from the County Attorney for a petition. We would have 30 days to gain enough signatures. If completed to the satisfaction of County Clerk Shew, the question of debt to fund jail expansion would be put to the voters. If the voters want a jail expansion, they can vote for one. If they don’t, they can reject it.

That sounds like democracy.

Call on the Douglas County Commission to grant their constituents their right to circulate a petition in the event the Commission decides to move forward with jail expansion.


Voices of Change
For whatever reasons, the CJCC has failed to live up to the messy task of leading our community to address the underlying problems raised above. They continue to reinforce the same superficial “overcrowding = need for bigger jail” formula they have implicitly or explicitly supported since their creation. They have failed even at this historic moment to recognize the urgency of criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration.

Call on the Douglas County Commission to place people hungry for reform onto the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.