Jackson County officials debate the need for a new detention center
Two months ahead of its looming eviction from the Jackson County Jail complex, Kansas City may have a rough transition plan for housing its displaced municipal inmates.
Kansas City rents space from the county for municipal offenders and detainees of the Kansas City Police Department, but Jackson County wants the city out. The city’s current lease with the county ends June 25.
Members of the City Council’s Finance and Governance and Neighborhoods and Public Safety committees voted in a joint meeting Wednesday in favor of two one-year contracts to rent 160 beds at two facilities — one east of the Crossroads Arts District and another in Johnson County, Missouri. The council could renew the contracts if needed.
Under one contract, the city would pay $3.2 million to rent 110 beds from the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change at 15th and Campbell Streets — 25 for police detainees and 85 for convicted offenders.
Another ordinance the committee passed would spend $1.2 million to rent 50 beds at the Johnson County, Missouri, jail for convicted offenders.
Those 160 beds still leave the city short compared to the 275 beds it has at the Regional Correctional Center, a small building adjacent to the county’s downtown jail tower.
“It’s going to be rough, and it’s going to be a not ideal situation,” Municipal Court Administration Megan Pfannenstiel told council members as she urged them to move forward on a long-term solution.
Donna Maize, assistant city manager for public safety, said the city averages 157 daily inmates alone, not including police detainees, which fluctuate.
Maize said the city tried multiple times to negotiate with Jackson County to no avail.
City Manager Troy Schulte appeared before the Jackson County Legislature earlier this month asking if the city could rent the building it currently occupies and take over operations. Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte was not receptive.
Under its current contract with Jackson County, Kansas City pays just over $54 per day per inmate, which Schulte said amounts to about $5.4 million per year.
Operating the new contracts will cost about the same, and is less expensive than meeting the $110 per inmate he said the county wants.
Council members voted unanimously in favor of the contract for Heartland, which also offers substance abuse treatment, reentry programs and other services. The full council is expected to vote on the contract Thursday.
The Johnson County contract, which passed 7-1 with Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, voting no, will be on the full council’s agenda next week.
Lucas was hesitant to send inmates nearly an hour away to the Johnson County Jail, requiring the city to make accommodations for transportation to court dates and appointments.
Pfannenstiel said only convicted inmates serving longer sentences, like domestic violence or chronic driving offenders, would be sent to Johnson County. And inmates who need frequent medical attention or other services will be housed at Heartland.
Pfannenstiel said the court would look at ways to more efficiently process detainees to free up space and that for inmates at Johnson County, it would look at coordinating release times to make transporting them easier.
Councilwoman Alissia Canady, 5th District, said alternatives to incarceration needed to be a significant portion of the discussion because the city wouldn’t have as much bed space.
“While we have a solution on where to house people, we have created a new set of challenges of logistics and what offenses we’re going to enforce and how we’re going to do that,” Canady said.
Canady said the city was not taking a “shotgun approach.”
“It’s not the best-case scenario, but it is a good set of options,” Canady said, “and it’s temporary, so it is what it is for now.”
Council members put off a discussion over whether to hire a consultant to advise on long-term solutions, including building a new jail. An ordinance on their agenda would have authorized a $300,000 contract with Archetype Design Group for design and consulting services on “potential jail solutions.”
But some council members worried the city was moving too quickly toward building a new jail and hadn’t had enough discussion about the city’s long-term needs.
Councilwoman Jolie Justus, 4th District, suggested the city appoint a task force to foster more discussion. Committee members didn’t rally behind a task force, but seemed in agreement that the council needed more time.
“I just feel like these are huge issues and I have spent the last 13 years trying to build fewer prisons and jails, and I feel like it would be throwing a lot of that work out the window if we did not have this conversation,” said Justus, a pro bono attorney. “At the same time, I understand there is a sense of urgency.”
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, said the city should go through a full bidding process.
“We got off the track with the airport and it took us a hell of a long time to get back on it,” Shields said, referencing the backlash the city faced after Burns & McDonnell proposed building the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport without going through a competitive bidding process.
Shields continued: “I don’t think we should start out with the issues around containing people in another haphazard manner. I think we need to proceed, and I think we need to have a group — and I’m happy to serve on it — that includes some council people where we’re discussing these broader issues.”
Staff members, including Pfannenstiel and Maize, encouraged council members to keep pressing forward beyond the short-term contracts.
“I want to make sure that we know that’s not the end road and we have to keep looking for the future,” Pfannenstiel said.
Schulte said a new jail with 440 beds would cost around $25 million.
The city closed its outdated detention facility atop Kansas City police headquarters in 2015 and has been renting from the county since. The city operated a jail for convicted municipal inmates until 2009.