Looking Through the Lenses of Fiscal Responsibility and Humanitarianism

Boone County Commissioners Jeff Wolfe, Tom Santelli and Don Lawson would like the public to know why it is imperative to the overall health of the county to support the proposed justice center. In their words, they explain why building the justice center isn’t about political grandstanding—it’s a humanitarian effort with substantial financial savings to Boone County taxpayers.

“We are still in the development and design stages,” Wolfe stated. “We are probably looking at completing the final design by May [2022]. Then we can start talking about construction packages, bids, so on and so forth. These will not be public bids through the commissioners because we’ve hired GM Design to develop this as a BOT [Build-Operate-Transfer], so they’ll be handling all that with our input.”

Santelli added, “There’s a real sense of urgency in terms of serving our community, in terms of construction costs and financing costs. Every month that we delay [this project], that is adding cost to the project and people not having access to services that we could be providing throughout the justice center campus.”

The Economics of Rehabilitation Versus Warehousing

Commissioners Wolfe and Santelli broke down a few of the talking points that explain the economic impact of having a justice center for those who are more or only interested in the financial pieces of the proposed project versus the humanitarian aspect of changing the trajectory of human lives and ultimately saving them.

Commissioner Jeff Wolfe

“I think an important thing that we [the commissioners] have learned throughout this process is what we would really accomplish through this justice center,” Wolfe stated. “Some of the [Boone County] council members have asked us, ‘What if the next sheriff doesn’t want to do all this mental health programming?’ And my answer is, ‘Well, if we have it all set up for them and have given them the necessary space to do it—why would they step away from something that is actually creating result?’”

Santelli added, “I think it all wraps together. Michael Nance [Boone County Community Corrections] presented his annual report to the commissioners and the council earlier this year. Our job is not to incarcerate people. Our job is to keep people out of jail to the best of our ability—not considering violent offenders. We currently have approximately 2,500 people in community corrections and probation. That saves a significant amount a year—$6.5 million—and it provides an avenue for those in the justice system to get treatment, mental health counseling, develop job skills, earn a GED and provides a litany of bridges for them to reintegrate back into the community.”

Commissioner Tom Santelli

According to Nance’s annual report, Boone County Community Corrections saved more than $5.4 million in tax money in 2021 amid a growing number of cases. The number of pretrial clients released to community corrections went from 243 in 2020 to 479 in 2021, and the number of active home detention clients rose from 183 to 227. Additionally, felony diversion clients rose from 66 to 82 during the same period.

“An important number in [Nance’s] annual report is the 5,789 drug screens that were pulled by community corrections and probation in 2021,” Wolfe said. “Out of those, only 700 were positive [drug screens]. That means something is working and making a difference in this system. Justin [Sparks], our county coroner, will tell you that in the first week that somebody’s released from jail, they’re 80 times more likely to overdose. That’s just the reality. So, when you’re seeing people on probation and there’s only 700 out of almost 6,000 that test positive—that tells you something is working in the system. Now assuming that there’s no growth in our county over the next 10 years, incarcerating these individuals rather than putting them into community corrections and probation would COST us as a county $6.5 million. Multiply that over 10 years and that’s $65 million that community corrections is saving the taxpayers. So, if you want to look at this from strictly a numbers perspective—treating people is less expensive than housing them. It’s just that simple.”

Santelli added, “Again, it all ties together. The new justice center campus includes 90–100 beds for treatment programs, and then we tie in the coroner’s office, morgue, crime scene investigations (CSI), work release programs, our family recovery court and drug court. We’ve got a lot of people that we could be treating right now, but because we don’t have the space and the resources in the current jail facility, we can’t get to them. It’s like going to the ER and being told that they’re not going to treat you because they don’t have the space or resources.”

Lawson spoke about the importance of rehabilitating people rather than simply warehousing them and how the latter will cost Boone County taxpayers more in the long run.

Commissioner Don Lawson

“It certainly is a concern to raise taxes at any point in time,” Lawson said. “And taxes are never good. Taxes are hard on people, no matter what and is it worse now than it was a year ago or will be in five years from now—I can’t say. I have a degree in animal science. I don’t have a degree in AG econ. But it’s extremely important from a [public] safety perspective that we rehabilitate these people. The more we rehabilitate versus warehouse, the more money the county is going to save and the more lives will be saved.”

Lawson, a volunteer firefighter of 35 years and EMT for 36 years, has seen the best and worst of human nature.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff over the years,” Lawson said. “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I understand safety and the more that we do for those people that are incarcerated, the more we can keep them from doing it again. Rehabilitating people makes our county and communities so much stronger and healthier.”

Lawson continued, “In one of the [public] meetings, we heard from three gentlemen who went through BCSO’s rehabilitation programs. One of them, had his six-year-old son with him who he could never see when he was in jail. Now, he has a full-time job and has full custody of his son. That’s the kind of thing that makes me excited because of what was accomplished. Another life was saved and now this gentleman has his son back and his life has been changed. He’s back on the good side again.”

As the County Grows, So Do the Needs of the County

The commissioners also spoke about the dire need for additional space for the county’s 911 communications center.

“Our county has doubled in size, and our communications center is underscaled for what we need to get accomplished,” Santelli explained. “There’s a lot of upgrading that needs to be done and space that needs to be added. When the communications center was added after the current jail was built [in 1992], it wasn’t designed for the growth that our county has been seeing. The justice center project will allow us the opportunity to architecturally add to the whole complex and have a communication center that will support our growing population.”

Lawson added, “Our population will continue to grow and being a donut county, unfortunately, we will grow more and more.”

Wolfe concluded, “When the current jail was built in 1992, the population of Boone County was 38,000. We’re almost at 71,000 people and growing exponentially. In the next 10 years, we will see another 20,000 before our next census. We’re not planning the justice center ‘too large’ for the needs of the county and its justice system. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The question really is, ‘Are we planning this center and campus to be large enough to carry us into the future?’”

For more detailed information and previous reports on the Boone County Justice Center, visit livinginboonecounty.com.