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Two More Reports Agree That Jackson County Needs A New Jail

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Two new reports released call for a new jail to replace the Jackson County Detention Center.

It's pretty much unanimous now: The Jackson County Detention Center needs to be replaced. That's according to two new, separate studies released Friday afternoon.

A task force organized by Jackson County Executive Frank White recommended building a new jail and hiring more staffers for the current jail, among other changes. And a separate report, produced by a group of paid consultants, finds a higher percentage of jail prisoners are awaiting trial compared to jails across the country, due in part to a 41 percent increase in case-processing delays.

Replacing the jail would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it's not clear how quickly it could be done.

For years, officials have been discussing the myriad problems at the jail, which is overcrowded, understaffed and undermaintained. There's also been a issue of  inmate deaths. 

In November 2017, County Executive Frank White created the task force to study the ongoing problems. But Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker refused to join the task force, and instead called for a grand jury to investigate the matter. 

The report from that investigation, released in May, argued there has been a "systemic failure to address (the jail's) well-documented problems," and blamed the jail's management and county administraion.

It also suggested White's task force duplicated work by a previous task force appointed by his predecessor in 2015. In response, White disputed "many characterizations" in the report and accused Baker of being politically motivated.

On Friday, White said in a news release that he agreed with the recommendation: "Jackson County would be best served by a new jail."

"Both reports make it very clear that if no changes are made to our criminal justice system, Jackson County will continue to contend with deeply-rooted issues, such as increasing incarceration rates, a disproportionate number of black men in jail and rising operational costs," White said. 

White was not available for comment Friday, and Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He said in a news release that he plans to review the reports with jail officials.

"Decisions must be made, but we will work with elected officials to move forward openly, honestly and collaboratively in the best interest of Jackson County," Forte said.

What could come next

Shive-Hattery, an Iowa-based architecture and engineering firm, issued one of Friday's reports. It examined three possibilities for a new jail, ranging in cost from $230 million to $270 million. The consultants estimated a new jail could house anywhere from 1,328 to 1,828 prisoners. The accompanying staff of 427 to 506 would reduce the jail's inmate-to-staff ratio from 95 inmates per corrections officer to 64, according to the report.

The current jail, built in 1984, is designed to hold 524 inmates but in recent years has housed upwards of 900 inmates daily. 

Another problem identified by Shive-Hattery: the mishmash of government bodies ultimately responsible for managing the prisoners housed in the jail. That would be the county legislature and executive; the Kansas City Police Department; the Kansas City Police Commission; the Western Region for the Missouri Department of Corrections Board of Probation and Parole; and Kansas City's municipal courts.

"This welter of authorities and duties has led to a highly disconnected and disjointed system in which entities typically operate largely in silos," the report said.

The task force appointed by White acknowledged the work of the consultants and also made numerous recommendations, such as:

  • Establish an overall limit to the number of inmates who can be housed in the jail, and reduce the jail population to reflect that limit.
  • Increase the number of authorized jail staffers, and "conduct intensive hiring" to fill open positions.
  • Create a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council — populated with a representative of the county executive, county legislature and Kansas City mayor — to better coordinate reform efforts.
  • Instruct the newly formed council to develop a "system-wide, three-year criminal-justice strategic plan."
  • Consider placing inmates from Kansas City Municipal Court in another facility.
  • Work to reduce bond levels for people with little risk to the community.

Those recommendations in some ways mirror the findings of the grand jury called by Baker, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. 

"The time for action has long since passed," the grand jury's report stated. "We challenge our county government to move past politics or elections."

KCUR reporter Andrea Tudhope contributed to this report. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @andreatudhope.

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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