Lawrence jail expansion

The Douglas County Commission voted to expand the Douglas County Jail on Wednesday, Jan. 29. Protesters attended the meeting in hopes of convincing commissioners to vote "no" on the expansion.

Justice Matters, a local interfaith activist group, filed legal action on Monday by requesting a writ of mandamus to force the Douglas County Commission to put the impending county jail expansion to a vote.

Justice Matters is joined in the effort by Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with a small list of Douglas County residents: Pastor Leo Barbee Jr., Kirsten Kuhn, Barbara Palmer, Carolyn Johnson and Jabari Bradshaw.

A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to a lower government official to carry out their duties in a lawful manner or to correct a past abuse of office. 

The action is meant to address the Douglas County Commission’s questionable method of financing the expansion, according to a press release from Justice Matters. The Kansan previously reported that the County Commission justified their decision to fund the majority of the project through the sale of general obligation bonds on a resolution passed in 1994.

“Attorneys for Justice Matters, Jim Kaup and William Skepnek, argue a plain reading of the law demonstrates that the County is incorrectly interpreting its responsibility to Douglas County residents,” according to the press release. 

Justice Matters and co-petitioners are of the opinion that jail expansion funding is in violation of K.S.A. 12-195b subsection e. The Kansas statute requires counties issuing such bonds that would indebt the county to be specifically announced in the local paper for two consecutive weeks. The last announcement must initiate a 30-day petition period where the collection of no fewer than 5% of the county's last voter turn-out (in this case roughly 2,500 signatures) forces the county to put the issue to a vote.

“The county is reviewing the allegations of the lawsuit. We do not have a comment at this time, but I anticipate the County will issue a statement later this week,” Douglas County Counselor John Bullock said.

The goals of the legal action, according to the press release, are to either compel the county to put the funding of the jail expansion to a vote or to fulfill the initial obligation of K.S.A. 12-195b subsection e, giving concerned citizens the right to file a petition within the 30-day window.

Justice Matters Co-President Brent Hoffman said that the actions of the County clearly go against the will of the voters.

“Just 20 months ago, every voting district in the County voted against a sales tax to fund a bigger jail and mental health and, just six months later, every voting district in the county overwhelmingly approved a sales tax to support mental health. Both measures would increase taxes. Both measures included mental health,"  Hoffman said. "There can only be one interpretation of these two votes: The people of Douglas County do not want a bigger jail until analysis, criminal justice reforms and alternatives to incarceration have been fully implemented."

-Edited by Brianna Wessling