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Kansas City Needs A New Place For Its Inmates, Some Councilmembers Don't Want A New Jail

Rebecca Hange
KCUR 89.3

There is a chance that there might be two new jails in Jackson County in the next few years — one for the county and one for Kansas City.

On June 25, the city will need to house its inmates and detainees somewhere else besides the downtown Jackson County jail. Last year the county ended its contract with the city, saying Kansas City needed to double the amount it paid Jackson County.

As Kansas City councilmembers figured out a temporary solution, City Manager Troy Schulte is proposing the city build a $25 million, 400-bed jail somewhere south of the river. Schulte said his staff has identified three possible sites. 

Schulte wanted a joint meeting of the council’s Finance, Governance & Neighborhood Committee to approve a $300,000 design and consulting contract to push his plan forward.

However, it ran into fierce opposition from some committee members. “There seems to be a decision made by the administration that what we need to do is build a new jail. And I’m hearing 400 beds, which sounds crazy to me,” said Councilwoman Katheryn Shields.

Councilman Quinton Lucas, who is running for mayor, agreed and said he would not support even the discussion of building a city-owned jail. "If we go through the steps to build a jail, we'll build a jail," he said.

The city faces both short-term and long-term inmate problems.

The committee seemed to solve the short-term problem on Wednesday. It approved two ordinances that would house city inmates and detainees after June 25.

One would provide 50 beds at the Johnson County jail in Warrensburg, Missouri, at a cost of $1.2 million. The city would only send inmates sentenced to jail time there. People arrested for unpaid traffic tickets or other minor offenses would not be sent to Warrensburg, according to the city manager's office. 

Some committee members were worried about transporting inmates to and from Warrensburg. Others were concerned that inmates sent there would not receive adequate medical care.

If they cannot make bail, detainees would go to the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change at 17th and Prospect, where they would wait to see a municipal judge. The city would pay to "harden" the facility so it could house prisoners.

But the most important service from Heartland, said the city, is to provide mental health and substance abuse programs for some city detainees.

The Heartland contract would cost $3.2 million a year

When all costs are considered, Shulte said the city would pay $5.4 million a year for inmate and detainee costs. About the same amount that the city was paying Jackson County, he said.

Kansas City police say on average there are 157 municipal inmates and detainees at the Jackson County Detention Center. The plans approved in committee would fall short of that, so municipal courts would face a complicated population control problem. "This is not an ideal situation for the court," said Presiding Judge Corey Carter. 

The court said it would hire a population control manager to make sure that only those who needed to be locked up are, in fact, in jail.

None of this is set in stone. The full council needs to approve the contracts with Johnson County, Missouri, and Heartland.

The committee plans to take up whether to build a new jail next week.

While all of this is going on, Jackson County is preparing to hire a main consultant as the county moves forward replacing the dilapidated downtown jail.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's metro reporter. You can follow Sam 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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