In recent years, big-ticket items have come in what seems like a giant wave in Kansas City.
Taxpayers have built a streetcar line. They’ve helped finance an entertainment district and a downtown arena. They’ve forked over tens of millions for infrastructure: streets, sidewalks, sewers. A downtown convention hotel may be in the works.
Add to that list the possibility of building a new county jail with a $300 million price tag.
Jackson County officials are starting to consider that massive project in the wake of reports of a filthy, overcrowded, rundown and dangerous detention facility at 1300 Cherry St. This was the site of last week’s raid that uncovered a pair of smuggling schemes.
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Spending hundreds of millions on a new jail isn’t at the top of anybody’s list of fun things to do while serving in government. County leaders are wisely considering options, but they need to pick up the pace.
Those leaders should focus on two initiatives that must happen regardless of whether the county builds a new jail. One of those is confronting a perverted jail culture where inmates are essentially in charge of the facility. Transferring these old problems to a new facility would make no sense. The culture needs to be addressed now.
The other imperative is dealing with overcrowded conditions that only add to the jail’s toxic atmosphere. Nearly everybody — judges, county legislators, jail officials — believes the prison houses too many inmates. Paring the population should be addressed immediately to avoid a situation where the federal government steps in and caps the population with little regard to what such a move would cost. In fact, multiple county leaders say privately that they can’t believe the federal government hasn’t swooped in already. Some suspect that the feds are weighing their choices.
With an inmate population totaling 900 on Friday, one of the facility’s two gyms is being used for bed space. And judges are making decisions knowing that jail time often isn’t an option. There simply isn’t room for more inmates. Johnson County, Kansas, which has far less crime, has a higher capacity.
The pressure on inmate population isn’t easing as the number of violent crimes in Kansas City continues to soar.
The Jackson County jail has been under federal supervision before. In 1986, two years after the detention center opened, a federal judge stepped in and set population limits.
That led to the center dispatching dozens of inmates to surrounding jails to ease overcrowding. Federal oversight ended in 2007, but some think the county should get back into the game of temporarily farming out inmates.
That possibility is complicated by a March incident in Johnson County, Missouri. Jackson County inmates who were housed there so that workers could add security and safety upgrades to the detention center in Kansas City rioted. Officials now say other counties may hesitate to take Jackson County inmates under any circumstance.
With that option off the table, and with a new facility several years off, county officials contend their hands are tied. They say they are desperate to find a path forward before a combustible jail atmosphere erupts.
One option should be broader use of house-arrest, work-release and pretrial supervision programs to ease crowding. Officials know that they must get on top of this issue — or the federal government could force their hand.