March 24th, 2019

A SECOND OPINION, The Lawrence Journal-World


A comprehensive study of the criminal justice system in Douglas County is something county commissioners should consider, but they shouldn’t accept money from Justice Matters to pay for it.

Justice Matters is a faith-based activist group that campaigned against the county’s proposed sales tax increase to pay for an expanded county jail and a mental health crisis center. Voters shot down the proposal in May, and the county continues to seek options for expanding the jail, which has more inmates than its 186 beds can accommodate.

This week, Justice Matters presented commissioners with an offer of $30,000 toward the cost of a comprehensive study into reducing the incarceration rate at the jail. Brent Hoffman of Justice Matters said the group has a donor willing to contribute the funding for the study. But the money comes with conditions, including that the donor remain anonymous and that the study be conducted by one of three firms — The Justice Management Institute, Vera Institute of Justice or Justice System Partners. Justice Matters estimates that the study would take six to eight months to complete.

There is cause for the county to undertake such a study, most notably to try to understand the factors that have led to steep increases in the county’s jail population despite decreases in arrests. The county never has been able to adequately explain that discrepancy, which hampered officials’ efforts to sell a $44 million jail expansion project to voters.

But if the county goes down a path of conducting a comprehensive criminal justice system study, it should do so without Justice Matters and its anonymous donor’s money. Fair or not, partnering with Justice Matters and accepting financial contributions from the organization would affect the perception of the results.

The county already has underway a National Association of Counties study of how to further reduce the county jail’s population of those with mental illness. And a study is to get underway soon that will explore why people of color are incarcerated in the county jail at a rate higher than their percentage of the county’s population.

Perhaps those studies will provide the county with the answers it needs on the jail. At a minimum, the county should ensure that, if a comprehensive study is undertaken, it works to complement the data being collected in the other studies.

Justice Matters has offered a good idea that the county should follow up on. But that’s where Justice Matters’ role should end. Taking money from Justice Matters for the project could skew public perception of the results and undercut the credibility of the study.

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