Guest Commentary

Let’s hit the pause button on more space for prosecutors

Bo Rader

There’s always money for what the comfortable want, whether it’s back-room funding for a new baseball stadium, money for some out-of-town consultant to tell us what we already know, or most recently, money for expanding the Sedgwick County jail.

But the expansion isn’t for more beds. It’s for additional cushy, comfortable offices for prosecutors.

We should say “no” to this nearly $7 million jail expansion. We shouldn’t spend another dime on office or jail space until we expand mental health care and drug treatment for offenders.

The Sedgwick County Jail, constructed in 1990, has an average daily population of 1,494 but capacity for a mere 1,122. But again, this expansion is not about easing jail overcrowding — it’s about easing prosecutor overcrowding.

According to an Eagle story in April, conditions have gotten so unbearable at the County Courthouse that District Attorney Marc Bennett said he couldn’t hire another prosecutor without doing the unthinkable: putting “two attorneys in one office.”

Oh, the humanity.

Also according to the story, to open up space for prosecutors, the Sedgwick County Commission will borrow $6.82 million to expand and renovate county jail space. The project moves about 40 sheriff’s officers from the courthouse to the jail, creating 9,300 square feet of remodeling space for the district attorney’s staff.

Commission Chairman David Dennis literally said, “The biggest problem that we’ve got is space in this facility.” Commissioner Jim Howell said despite its expense, “I think it’s imperative to get this done sooner rather than later.”

Wrong. On both counts.

The biggest problem isn’t space. It’s that we’re locking up too many people, and it’s imperative that we finally address the root causes of this systemic overcrowding.

If we’re constantly filling up jails, maybe the problem isn’t jail space. Maybe it’s the upstream policies that criminalize mental illness and substance abuse. We have an opportunity and an obligation to attack the central problem in all of its complexity rather than throwing money at symptoms.

Bigger offices for prosecutors won’t solve any of the actual problems at the jail now well over capacity. And it’s important to remember that most of those folks locked up there have not been convicted. They’re awaiting trial and are there only because they can’t afford bail.

And we’re considering expensive, additional office space.

It’s not too late to hit the pause button.

Some neighborhoods have a particularly important stake in these discussions, but we need the entire community’s input. Whether you have loved ones or tax dollars — or both — tied up in the justice system, this should matter to you.

It’ll take some time to come up with ideas but let’s sit down together and do this difficult work as a community. We’re better than this. We’re better than default spending on ideas proven not to work.

And while we deliberate, prosecutors can double bunk. If inmates can do it, prosecutors can survive the temporary horrors of an officemate.

Laura Tillem is a member of the board of directors of the Peace and Social Justice Center of South-Central Kansas