County facility looks to expand

As crowding at the Johnson County jail has become more of a concern in recent years, a program that sentences people to work release and home detention has been looked at as an alternative.

The community corrections program charges fees to offenders to be monitored at home or kept in a facility where they can leave each day for work. The program has grown since moving into its current location less than 20 years ago, and now officials are looking for a way to expand, Community Corrections Director Albert Hessman said.

Currently, the 100-person facility that houses offenders on work release is at about 50 percent capacity, and the space for female offenders reaches capacity more than 85 percent of the time. In the next few years, Hessman hopes to expand the facility to house 150 people, with 25 additional beds for females to keep up with demand.

But that can’t happen in the program’s current facility, a pole barn that has housed the program for the past 20 years. Officials have wanted to move out of the building for at least two years.

The most recent desire for a bigger facility comes after state legislators revamped sentencing guidelines, meaning more inmates would be sent to local programs including the county jail. The jail has room for 322 inmates and recently has been averaging 277.

Local officials raised concerns that the jail would become overcrowded if the 150 inmates typically sent to state prisons each year were kept in the county jail. Part of the solution was to send more of those offenders to community corrections programs, such as work release or home detention.

Since voters turned down a $23 million county jail expansion project in 2010, officials are looking for a way to expand both the jail and the community corrections program without needing a vote from residents. In order to do that, construction would need to stay under $12 million per project, Sheriff Doug Cox said.

Right now, the county’s work-release program, which is used by offenders convicted of drug use or a nonviolent crime, has room for no more than 40 more men and two more women. Exactly how many new offenders could be sent to the program isn’t known, but Hessman wants to add space for another 50 offenders due to the new legislation.

An expansion has been discussed for more than two years, but no plans have been set. The board for the program has discussed either moving to an existing location or building a new facility. Officials don’t know where the facility would be built or where the money for construction would come from.

But officials plan to make that decision by the middle of next year to prepare for additional offenders being sent to community corrections programs over the next few years, Commissioner Ron West said.

Currently, the building has room for a maximum of 90 male and 10 female offenders on work release at one time. The female beds are often at capacity, Hessman said. To alleviate this problem, he hopes to have 25 to 30 beds for female offenders.

The current space cannot be split up to provide separate areas for offenders based on needs or risks. All men in the work-release program stay in one room similar to a dormitory, Hessman said. He would rather have separate, smaller living quarters for offenders based on severity of crime, risks and needs.

Home detention, on the other hand, is relatively limitless, Hessman said. More than 90 people are serving home detention, but that program could add more people if needed, Hessman said.

A major goal for community corrections is to expand rehabilitation education. Repeat offenders often break the law due to repeated drug use, alcohol abuse and other lower-level felonies or misdemeanors, Hessman said.

Although some classes are offered by community corrections staff, most offenders are sent elsewhere for rehabilitation that community corrections does not have space for, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Hessman said.

If more rehabilitation space were available in a new facility, community corrections could provide more classes in-house for offenders, he said. This allows more people to take courses at once without having to leave the building. Currently, not every kind of rehabilitation program is available for each offender’s needs inside the facility, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Hessman said.

By the numbers

Here is a closer look at the community corrections program:

90: capacity for male offenders

10: capacity for female offenders

85 to 90 percent: how often female beds are at full capacity

About 40: beds available for male offenders

93: offenders on home detention