One of the most classic can-kicking maneuvers in the whole local government playbook is to appoint an all-new, blue-ribbon task force, the purpose of which is almost invariably to look attentive to an issue while delaying any real action.
Jackson County Executive Frank White’s recently announced committee on whether to build a new detention center to replace the current, perpetually overcrowded and demonstrably unsafe one is not even a new task force, exactly.
Five of its members also served on the previous jail committee. You know, the one that just issued its report two years ago.
Some county legislators are not sure getting the band back together is such a good idea. “We don’t need more studies,” Dennis Waits said.
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Some members of the new task force agree. “We’re definitely going to have to have a new jail,” said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp, and in “we could have gotten in a room together and figured this out instead of having a task force and dragging this out over six more months,” especially since the situation is so dire. We agree.
But since White did appoint the group, we have to say the new task force seems awfully Kansas City-centric to us, especially since all county residents would be expected to pay for a new facility, and potentially, to house it.
White’s purpose in appointing the new group seems to be to make a case for building a new jail, but one with the same number of beds, or only slightly more. “I want to make clear I’m not opposed to a new jail,” he’s said. “But I’ve yet to be convinced that we need a bigger jail.”
It is true that jail and prison populations tend to expand to fill the number of available beds.
And Lisa Pelofsky, who is on the task force, too, sees the group as having been convened in part to make sure that’s not what happens in Jackson County. “My sense is this is to finish the work that was started” by the last task force, “and one of the big questions is the size. What do we want the capacity to be, and are there alternatives for individuals waiting for trial? Do we just keep building more and more jails with more and more cells? We as a society don’t want to see folks incarcerated because they’re poor” or need treatment for mental illness.
Of course she’s right about that. As White has said, alternatives to incarceration could be considered for some of those awaiting trial, as most of the detention center’s 1,000 inmates are.
But we hope the group hasn’t already ruled out expanding as needed. “There are people housed in the day areas in the current jail,” says the sheriff, “so there’s need right there” for hundreds of new beds. He thinks 1,500-2,000 beds is more realistic. We don’t know the right number, but hope the task force will follow the facts, and as briskly as possible.