A debate over the county’s role in the criminal justice system heated up during Tuesday’s Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting. Mental health, racial disparities and capacity for incarcerated juveniles at the Douglas County Youth Center dominated the five-hour long meeting.

The County Board voted 5-2 to move forward with a new mental health treatment unit for the Douglas County Correctional Center at 17th and Jackson streets. The approval comes after the County Board denied a proposal last week for a community mental health facility to be combined with the jail expansion.

The county set aside $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the full project, but the treatment unit is estimated to cost around $33 million. The project also proposes a new parking structure or additional surface-level parking.

Commissioner P.J. Morgan said he wanted to split up the proposal so the County Board could take more time on a proposed new Community Mental Health Center.

“This allows us more time to seek all options and have greater community input,” Morgan said.

About 20% of the jail’s population is diagnosed with a severe mental illness, which Commissioner Maureen Boyle said is a huge responsibility for the corrections department. She supported the resolution, but she said the county needs to do more to keep people struggling with mental illness out of jail.

“I’m concerned that we’ll lose sight of the non-criminally mentally ill,” Boyle said. “We need to really take care of people that are homeless, people that have chronic substance abuse, those people that are on the fringe of the criminal justice system.”

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said law enforcement supports the project. He said an enhanced facility and specially trained staff will address the high number of people experiencing a mental health crisis that deputies encounter regularly.

Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson, who voted against the resolution, said others have missed the point of combining the jail’s treatment unit and community mental health in one facility, which she said would allow them to address both the incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations.

“Nearly half of our community mental health staff is already working with our jail staff in the population within our jail facility,” Borgeson said. “This, in the end, would just be enhancing it…it saddens me that this has been lost.”

Commissioner Chris Rodgers joined Borgeson in voting no. He said the county is trying to fill a need that should be addressed by the state, which hasn’t done its part in improving mental healthcare in the criminal justice system.

“If we’re going to put more money into [the justice system], it’s just like pouring water on the ground in 120 degree weather,” Rodgers said. “It will evaporate so fast.”

The County Board also voted Tuesday to terminate agreements that allow the Douglas County Youth Center (DCYC) to detain youth referred by the state probation office and the U.S. Marshal Service so that the county can negotiate new agreements.

Kim Hawekotte from county administration said they want to prioritize youth from within the county. She said the terminations, which will be effective starting Aug. 1, will give them more leverage in negotiations with the state.

Both agreements were terminated on a 4-2 vote, with Commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Friend voting no and Commissioner Roger Garcia abstaining. Commissioner Friend said he was concerned that the number of youth on probation will likely increase over the summer.

Sheriff Hanson opposed the terminations Tuesday. He said ending the agreements could threaten public safety by releasing dangerous youth into the community, or youth from Nebraska could end up detained out-of-state.

“It’s unfortunate that some young people have to be detained,” Hanson said. “I urge you to oppose these items. Our community and our young people in need deserve better.”

Commissioner Rodgers, who voted in favor of the terminations, said youth are already being sent to out-of-state detention facilities. He said DCYC isn’t meant for long-term stays, and it’s the state probation office’s responsibility to reduce the length of stay for the less dangerous youth in the facility.

“One thing they can do is in-home services,” Rodgers said. “It’s kids sitting in there for 30 to 40 days and at the end of it they go home. Why do you have to sit there for 30 days to go home?”

LaVon Stennis-Williams from ReConnect, Inc., a non-profit that provides reentry programs, supported the terminations. She said the county was finally taking action to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Stennis-Williams said Sheriff Hanson has used racial dog whistles in his opposition to the terminations.

“When he goes out west to talk about public safety and he shows them the detention data and there’s a highlight of the makeup of our Black and brown children, what he’s implying is that these kids who are going to be released supposedly to go out and do all this mayhem are Black and brown kids,” she said.

Along with the terminated agreements, the County Board approved measures to reduce the number of youth detained in DCYC from 84 (as of May 4) to 55 by the end of the year. The new facility will only have 64 beds, and Hawekotte said they should aim to maintain about 80-85% of the total capacity.

The resolution was approved 4-3, with Commissioners Cavanaugh, Friend and Garcia voting no. Commissioner Cavanaugh said the resolution was just a “wish list” that did nothing to begin reducing the population.

“I’m interested in real change here,” Cavanaugh said. “This isn’t real and this will have no effect on reality.”

Commissioner Rodgers said the resolution laid out a time frame to reach their goal capacity. He said the numbers are based on statistical analysis

The County Board adjourned at 1:55 p.m. Tuesday, which forced the Omaha City Council meeting to start a few minutes late. The City Council met briefly to approve liquor licenses before entering into closed session for labor negotiations.

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