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Jackson County and Kansas City couldn't agree on a regional jail. So they're building 2

A man wearing a blue suit talks at a podium. Behind him are large, yellow earth-moving machines.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jackson County Executive Frank White talks during groundbreaking ceremonies for the new detention facility in September of last year.

Mayor Quinton Lucas says the county cited costs in turning away a proposal to add a municipal jail to the $256.5 million Jackson County Detention Center. Now the city and county are spending “half a billion dollars on two jails potentially across the street from each other,” Lucas said.

Kansas City officials are moving forward with a plan to build a $150 million city jail after talks failed on a proposal to build it alongside the new Jackson County Detention Center already being constructed on the city’s eastside.

Jackson County officials refused to collaborate, citing the addition of costs to their own project, Mayor Quinton Lucas said Monday. With the two facilities, the region will be spending “half a billion dollars on two jails potentially across the street from each other,” he said.

The county broke ground on its new detention facility on September 7th. The facility was projected to cost $256.5 million, though costs have already escalated. The city owns property near the new detention center, and the new jail may be built there, Lucas said. A design firm has been selected from several bids, he said.

Lucas said he’s been talking with County Executive Frank White and will be meeting with more county officials this week in hopes he can change the minds of those in county government who are opposed to adding the city jail. Lucas believes the two entities working together could result in $100 million in savings.

“If they think it’s rational, responsible for us to spend half a billion dollars – half a billion dollars – just in Kansas City/Jackson County on incarceration, notwithstanding the expenses you have annually on paying for the people to staff it, then OK, I’ll take that hit, I guess,” Lucas said.

“But, for me, I think it's most important for us to say, ‘How can we do best by our public in terms of being cost efficient and effective?’”

Jails have been a point of contention between the county and the city for years.

A Kansas City Municipal Court study says the city needs a facility to hold non-violent offenders who are accused of smaller, municipal offenses and who usually are held from one day to 53 days if convicted. Men held in the county detention center are often charged with violent crimes and felonies and are housed there for an average of 226 days, the study says.

In the past, the city contracted with the county to hold its 275 detainees, but the deal fell apart in 2019 when the county costs increased. The city is now sending those people to Johnson and Vernon counties in Missouri, where it has contracts for 105 beds at an annual cost of about $1.8 million. The other jails are more than an hour away, making it difficult for those trying to visit friends or family members accused of city offenses.

The city wrote the the Jackson County Legislature a letter asking to partner on the facility in late June. In October, county lawmakers approved a resolution to explore the possibility of a partnership. Jackson County Legislator Dan Tarwater sponsored the resolution and said the city and county need to work together.

“There have been emails going back and forth. There have been people saying that ‘Well, so-and-so didn’t call, someone else didn’t call back, whatever,’ Tarwater said in the October meeting. “The time came and went. Now the time has come back where this may be something that they can look at together.”

Tarwater said the city proposal could cost $150 million or more. It calls for a 180,000-square-foot holding facility with 310 beds plus an additional 65 special management beds, according to a city document asking for bids that was issued last year.

“The updated 2022 detention center study has concluded that the municipal facility should provide social justice, reduce recidivism as well as have both medical and mental health capabilities,” the document says.

Two Jackson County Legislators voted against the October resolution to explore the partnership with the city. Legislator Jalen Anderson cited the already over-budget cost of the detention center. A county update published in September said the cost of the 1,244-bed facility will escalate at least 12 percent because of supply chain problems, labor shortages and an increase in raw materials.

“We do not have the money to go past $256.5 million,” he said, pounding his desk. “I don’t know how many times we gotta say this – until we’re red in the face!”

Anderson, along with Legislator Jeanie Lauer, said the city’s proposal comes much too late to be added to the county facility, which is being built near the intersection of Missouri Highway 40 and Interstate 70. If officials want a regional jail, which some have proposed, it should have been raised in 2019 when talks first started, Anderson and Lauer said.

Lucas said he believes the city could cover the costs of a new jail without having to ask voters for more money in April, and part of the bond payments could come from the Kansas City Police Department’s budget. Chief Stacey Graves indicated support for a new city jail during her public job interview in December.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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