Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. wants to take a comprehensive look at corrections questions before moving forward on a possible new jail.
“I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to a new jail, but I have yet to be convinced that we need a bigger jail,” he said Tuesday in announcing a 14-member task force that he’s giving six months to hear community concerns, study the jail, study such things as alternatives to incarceration and then come back with recommendations.
John Fierro, co-chair of the group, promised a “very open and transparent process.” The group plans public meetings and listening sessions. Those with questions, concerns or ideas can call 816-881-6461 or go to email@example.com.
“What is of utmost importance to me is the safety of our personnel and our detainees,” Fierro said.
Those safety concerns were highlighted by two known attacks on guards this summer, a massive law-enforcement raid in June that led to charges related to contraband getting into the jail, and a consultant’s report in September that said the county has “an outdated, failed jail complex.”
The jail has more than 800 inmates, higher than its rated capacity. The consultant recommended replacing it with a 1,000-bed facility and put that cost at $150 million to $180 million. Several county elected officials have said the county is on the road to a new jail but that it will take roughly four years to design and build it.
“We will have a one- to five-year plan …” when the task force is done, White said.
More immediately, White said he supports a $16 million bond package for immediate jail repairs, addressing most of the pressing issues the consultant highlighted in September. The county can issue those bonds without voter approval. The question is likely to go to the County Legislature on Monday. White also wants to raise the pay of corrections officers in order to reduce turnover.
White named several elected officials among the 14 members of the task force: County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Sheriff Mike Sharp, Legislature Chairman Scott Burnett, State Rep. Brandon Ellington and Kansas City Council Member Alissia Canady. White identified the key issues as the jail’s maintenance and staffing costs, current and future capacity needs, regional cooperation, ways to prevent recidivism – that is, getting into trouble with the law over and over – and alternatives to incarceration.
He also listed “new facility construction vs. current facility renovation” as a priority for consideration, seeming to leave the door open to keeping the current jail.
Fierro also cited the number of people with mental illness who end up in the jail because the community has few options when they get into trouble. That issue came up repeatedly during the 2015 task force, on which he Fierro also served.
“We have to improve that,” he said.
Jackson County Presiding Judge John Torrence said the state’s failure to support mental-health services has worsened jail problems.
“This isn’t a coincidence,” he said.
“These are the kinds of things,” Torrence added, “we need to be talking about.”