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The Long, Complicated Road To Fixing The Jackson County Jail

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

The Jackson County jail is a mess. It’s overcrowded, understaffed and from elevators to toilets, there's a lot that’s broken.

Everyone agrees with that. But how to fix it is complicated and fraught with politics.

Actually, when you walk in the lobby, it is bright and clean and not entirely unpleasant.

But beyond the doors leading into the jail, it’s plain awful.

The engineering firm HOKlast year rated the four-building complex "poor." Toilets leak through holes in the ceiling onto inmates, fire suppression is in bad shape, the roof needs replacing on one building and some cell doors don’t lock. The list goes on and on.

While not everyone says the county needs a new jail, most observers lean in that direction. They just disagree on how big it should be and what to do with the current lockup.

“It is a balance of you’re going to have to make some financial investments right now for the current population and then also look long term for, ultimately, what does a modern facility cost for the inmates," says John Fierro, co-chair of a task force charged with finding a solution to the problem.

So improvements will have to be made at the downtown facility at the same time a new jail is being built, making the task both complex and expensive.

The Jackson County jail was built for 850 inmates. It often houses around 1,000.

It's smaller than many county jails in cities with comparable populations. St. Louis has 1,350 beds, Cincinnati has 1,472 and Memphis has 3,181, according to figures compiled by the Jackson County Prosecutor's office.

One of the solutions under discussion is simply putting fewer people in jail.

“You have to look at the process of who we’re arresting and who we can safely let go out,” says County Executive Frank White, who created the task force. White says alternatives to incarceration and cash bail need to be explored before deciding on a new jail that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“So if you don’t examine the process of how we’re doing our business, then that jail is going to be overcrowded at some point, too, and then you’re going to be talking about expanding and expanding,” he says.

The jail task force was told that 47 percent of jail inmates nationwide haven’t been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford bail.

The task force says it will discuss alternatives to incarceration, something White clearly supports.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp and Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker say the county is less safe because the downtown jail is not big enough to house convicted criminals and too many people are released on bail.

But Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says because the jail is so small, Jackson County began letting most people out without bail a long time ago.

The jail is a top-of-mind concern not just for her, she says, but for everyone in her office.

“Every single assistant prosecutor is acutely aware of the limited space and the limited capacity of our Jackson County Jail and we make decisions based off that,” Baker says.

You won’t find a burglar or car thief in the county jail; there’s no room. And there’s even something called a population control docket: county judges who meet every day to determine who can be safely released.

In the best of circumstances, space should not figure into the equation.

“That determination ought to be made on dangerousness, flight risk, but in Jackson County we add a third category which is, Is there space?” Baker says.

Does she think the community is not as safe as it would be otherwise because of that additional consideration? 

"Yes. I agree with that," she says. "Yes, I think our community is not as safe because we have that third category in Jackson County."

As a rule, the jail's 600 beds are filled with people who would not be granted bail. They include accused murderers and those charged with shooting someone or domestic violence. Some of the 600 beds are filled by absconders, inmates captured after fleeing probation, according to Baker. That doesn't leave much room for anyone else.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp agrees the county would be safer if the jail was bigger.

“We arrest them," Sharp says. "We take them to the jail. They’re bonded out and they’re back on the street again and we’re chasing the same people over and over and over again.”

So the logistics are complicated: Fixing the current jail to improve safety for both staff and inmates and, at the same time, planning for a long-term solution.

But the politics are also complicated. White and the Jackson County Legislature are ateach other’s throatsover a host of issues, so compromise will be difficult. And if a new jail is to be built, it will have to be sold to voters.

The jail task force is supposed to report back in six months.

Sam Zeff is KCUR's Metro Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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