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Jo Co Jails Needs May Trump Education

Johnson County Corrections Director Betsy Gillespie at the juvenile detention center. Regulations prohibited photographing inmates.
Photos by Steve Bell
Johnson County Corrections Director Betsy Gillespie at the juvenile detention center. Regulations prohibited photographing inmates.

By Steve Bell


Olathe, KS – Johnson County has the reputation of having some of the best correctional facilities in the nation.

They are jails, to be sure, with the ever- present lattice-work of bars and sounds of heavy steel doors closing. But the New Century Correctional Facility at Gardner and the Juvenile Detention Center in Olathe are modern, well equipped and, given what they are, fairly pleasant places.

County Corrections Director Betsy Gillespie says though modern the facilities are inadequate because they are not large enough to house the number of inmates being sentenced. The problem, she says, is population growth. Per capita crime rates have actually decreased in Johnson County.

She says there is one building that needs replacement -- the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center. It is the oldest building at the juvenile justice complex in Olathe.

The principal structural problem, according to county Facilities Director Neal Angrisano, that the concrete slab floors are settling and taking the concrete block walls with them, pulling them away from the roof, which has a separate support system.

Repairs were made a decade ago, but the settling continues. And though the building is not in danger of collapse, inspectors have ruled that some parts of it should not be occupied. Closing those sections has resulted in a crowding situation, where areas must serve multiple purposes.

Damian Almanza, supervises the intake and assessment program in the building slated for replacement. He explains that it is separate from the detention center, and kids typically stay for a matter of a few hours -- typically, first or second-time misdemeanor offenders. Others who pass through the facility include abuse victims and runaways, who remain until case workers can find placements for them.

The adjacent juvenile detention center can house 75. Gillespie says the capacity needs to be more like 100, so the county is having to send juveniles to other Kansas detention centers, sometimes as far away as Junction City. Gillespie says this creates a hardship on families that want to visit the juveniles. She also notes that the county has to pay the cooperating facilities at a rate exceeding what it would cost if the Johnson County facility were large enough to accomodate the overflow.

County Manager Michael Press says the bed shortage is much more acute at the adult correctional facility in Gardner. "Currently we're what we call 'farming out' over 350 prisoners each and every day, at great expense to the taxpayers of Johnson County." He adds that sending prisoners out of the community takes away support systems of the inmates families and attorneys and places them in counties that do not have the rehabilitation programs available in Johnson County.

County officials recommend replacing the juvenile intake building, expanding the juvenile and adult detention center and doubling the size of the New Century jail. In addition to construction costs that can be bonded, the enlarged facilities will require operating budgets of $14 million a year to start, increasing as inmate populations grow.

County Legislature Chair Annabeth Surbaugh proposes holding an eledction to extend the one-fourth-cent sales tax next year, but devoting it to corrections rather than education. She says, "I was the leader of the one to give it to the schools because schools are what has made Johnson County, and they were I dire straits. I am leading the charge to now address county public safety issues because I feel very clearly we are in the same position as they were six years ago in regard to our needs."

Surbaugh adds that more than half of the inmates in the adult correctional facility are not Johnson County residents, though convicted of offenses in Johnson County. She believes that makes the sales tax more fair than other types of taxes because it will spread part of the burden to communities that are home to many inmates.

There may be resistance from the school districts. Pat All, superintendent of Olathe schools, says it would take a three mill property tax levy to make up the five million dollar loss to her district. That means, she says, the county needs to "take a very serious look at the plan" before making the change.

Superintendent Tom Trigg of the Blue Valley Schools agrees, saying there needs to be careful study of "what really are the best long-run interests of the county."

County leaders say the Shawnee Mission district supports dedicating the sales tax to a new purpose. But Spokesperson Liegh Anne Neal says that's up to the other two school districts. She says the Shawnee Mission school board is on record as not actively seeking an election to have the tax renewed, but should the other districts successfully seek its continuation, "we'd not be turning that away."

Johnson County tax activist Wayne Flaherty, who contributed to the defeat of Bistate II, says he knows of no opposition to extending the sales tax, but is aware of some groups that would insist any jail expansion be done using county financial reserves.

The Johnson County Commission will attempt to refine the jail proposal at its October 16 meeting.

Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcurnewsphotos/sets/72157601444541680

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