Over-crowded jail, population growth, funding issues all on the table
Platte County’s newly formed jail advisory committee held its first meeting June 2, with another set for later this week. Last month, the Commissioners appointed a nine-member committee tasked with taking about 90 days to review short and long-term facility needs for the County detention center, judiciary and prosecutor’s office. Committee members are: Cory Ball, Galen Dean, Susan Huffman, Don Breckon, James Roberts, Paul Dobbie, Jeff Watson, Jacque Cox and Dagmar Wood. With Breckon absent from the first meeting, Roberts was appointed the chair of the committee, a role he said he was happy to take on as he has experience in about 14 private correctional facilities. He said for 11 years, he helped develop such facilities for a company named Dominion, which focused on building private prisons across the country for state and federal prisoners. Often, he said, such prisons were built in rural communities as economic development initiatives. After the 90s, he said, the market for private prisons dried up and he now owns a Parkville-based company that handles prisoner transfers. After hearing an introduction from Commissioners Jason Brown, Duane Soper and Beverlee Roper, some of the committee members were unclear on the purpose of the committee. Soper suggested the committee look at one, five and 10 year projections for growth and see if they could come to a conclusion on how to address the needs for expanded justice services. Brown said it’s possible the committee will not be able to reach a full conclusion. Currently the detention center — which has about 150 beds — is nearly full, due to a federal mandate that says once a jail is 85 percent full it is essentially at its capacity. The detention center hit a detention population high of 170 inmates last year, which prompted the County to focus attention on the problem. Captain Joseph King, detention division commander, said the overpopulation issue now is handled by using temporary cots for prisoners, but the fix is only that – temporary. If the jail is left overcrowded, it does not allow for proper and legal separation of the different classifications of prisoners in custody and it opens the County up to litigation. “Between the three of us, we can’t get to one position on this problem,” Brown said, referencing himself and the two district commissioners. “It is a problem, because this County will continue to grow and the resources we have are finite.” The Commissioners outlined the projected population growth, particularly along Highway 169. “They’re putting the sewers in the ground out there right now,” Roper said. The area west of Hwy. 169 within the Interstate 435 corridor is slated for a massive residential development over the next 15-20 years. While much of it is in Clay County, estimates project it could bring up to 80,000 people to the Northland within 20 years. Committee members questioned if this population increase would herald a drastic increase in crime such as to require construction of a new jail. “The number of felonies we file every year has consistently increased,” said Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd. “But it has increased not so much because the crime rate is going up as just because we have more population and more growth. Growth is a great thing, and we get a lot of great new people. But, along with those great people you do get some bad people.” Platte County Circuit Court Judges James Van Amburg and Thomas Fincham were also present at the meeting, and told committee members due to population growth the court, which now has five divisions, will probably need another. Right now, there is no room in the existing courthouse facility for another judge and his or her attached courtroom, offices and staff. In comparison, Clay County has eight divisions of Circuit Court. “We want to be ahead of the ball a little,” Van Amburg said. Fincham pointed out that with population growth it’s not just criminal cases that would grow. The civil caseload would grow exponentially as more businesses and people entered the county. Sheriff Mark Owen further explained what’s at stake. The present county detention center was built under court order. “Basically, the County was sued and told it had to build the present jail,” Owen said. “We’re here today because we don’t want that to happen again.” He and former sheriff Dick Anderson had discussed the need for a new jail facility for several years, Owen said, but the recent spike in daily population numbers moved the timetable forward. When the current jail was built, it was built to last 20 years, but it hit capacity within 15 years. King said he could organize a tour of the existing facility for the committee members.