Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. says his jail task force will lead a needed community conversation about issues such as the size of a new jail, inequities in who gets held in the county jail and about dumping mental-health patients into the criminal justice system.
“We’re listening to the public,” White said, adding that public support will be needed at some point when the county would go to the voters for approval for a new facility.
He rejects several county legislators’ contention that the county should move immediately to plans for a new jail and said the jail has been deteriorating for more than a generation. During those years, he points out, some of those who are now his toughest critics have been in office with oversight of the facility.
“It’s not a quick process. I mean, it took us 30-some-odd years to get here,” White said in an interview with The Examiner on Monday.
His challenge grew more complicated on Monday when County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she has changed her mind and will not serve on the 17-member task force. She said in a letter to White that last week’s attack on a jail guard changed her mind and that “action is required now to fix the immediate problems at the jail.”
White’s office issued a statement that he is disappointed and hopes Baker would reconsider but said the broader look at the criminal justice system is needed.
Many of the immediate needs at the jail that Baker mentioned were outlined nearly three months ago in a consultant’s report that called the jail “failed” and recommended repairs and changes now and a new jail soon.
To address that, White is asking the Legislature to move ahead on a $30 million bond issue. A little more than half is for immediate jail repairs. The rest is for information technology upgrades, property assessment upgrades and work at the Downtown Courthouse, including sprinklers and replacing the building’s 80-year-old elevators.
The money to service those bonds is in White’s proposed 2018 budget, which legislators are scheduled to take up next week. The bond issue has been kicked around for weeks but is not on today’s County Legislature agenda, and the Legislature is likely to wrap up its work for the year within a couple weeks,
“We’re definitely pushing them to get it done,” White said Monday.
During the interview he also touched on several other points:
• The jail corrections officer attacked last Wednesday is doing better. White saw him Friday and said he was up and around some on Monday. He suffered broken bones in the face and a bleeding of the brain, but the Corrections Department said Monday he is expected to recover. The inmate has been charged in the attack and is being moved to a different facility.
White stressed that safety and security are paramount, “When I took this job, it was to improve the quality of life for the residents of Jackson County. Corrections officers are very important to me,” he said.
• He’s still pushing for $15 an hour for starting corrections officers, though he cautioned that even that figure might not solve the jail’s high rate of turnover and inability to fill out its staff. “When I came in, the first thing I looked at was the turnover,” he said. The $15-an-hour change is likely coming in January, legislators have said.
• He’s been criticized by some legislators for not often sitting in on County Legislature meetings and for not communicating with legislators enough. He rejected both of those. He said the constant criticism isn’t appropriate and said he’s uncomfortable getting hit with a question in public instead of a phone call. He said the two legislators who are the most critical -- Dennis Waits of Independence and Dan Tarwater of Kansas City -- won’t return his calls.
• He said the jail will continue to work with Truman Medical Centers to address mental-health issues among jail inmates.
White has said a new jail is needed – “It’s the where, when and how,” he said – and agrees with other county officials that finding land, designing a jail and getting it built will take about four years. In the meantime, officials say, millions have to be spent at the current jail for the safety of staff and inmates.
But he says a key issue – the jail’s capacity – remains unresolved. The county’s jail, like most around the country, has more inmates that its rated capacity.
“The thing about the jail is, the jail is overcrowded,” White said.
White wants a close look at issues that play out inequitably across the community, generally along economic and racial lines. A poor person is less likely to make bail. A jobless person is less likely to be released, pending trial, on his own recognizance. So, White and others have asked, are there alternatives such as house arrest or different criteria for judges to decide who sits in jail pending trial and who gets an alternative. Answering those kinds of questions gets at the size jail that’s needed.
“So I’m hoping that the task force will get us closer to where we need to be,” White said.
He added, “How can we get to a number that everyone agrees is a good number?”
Finances are large concern, too, not just the cost of building a jail but the cost of running one. The county holds prisoners facing state charges, but the state only reimburses a fraction of the county’s costs. Kansas City pays more to the county to hold its Municipal Court inmates, but it’s still less that the county’s cost.
The upshot is that county taxpayers spend $30 million a year to run the jail and, White points out, a larger jails would deepen that deficit.
The county took the Kansas City inmates two years ago. The county is asking is the city to kick in more of the cost of those inmates, The county could, with 12 months notice, walk away from that deal and hand that facility on the grounds of County Jail back to the city.
“It’s always on the table,” White said.