A story related last month at a Douglas County Commission meeting of an inmate in the county jail has criminal justice officials shaking their heads.
The story, shared during public comment, is of an unidentified Lawrence man who has been in jail for weeks following his arrest on a single charge of possession of marijuana. The story doesn’t add up, Undersheriff Gary Bunting and Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said, because in Lawrence, people are issued citations for simple marijuana possession, not arrested.
“There’s this misconception out there that the jail is filled with people arrested for smoking marijuana,” Bunting said. “That’s just not the case.”
Bunting has documentation that pot smokers or other misdemeanor offenders, especially those awaiting trial, are not filling up the Douglas County jail. Such inmates aren’t the reason the county is seeking voter approval this spring of a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million, 179-bed expansion of the jail, he said.
What type of inmates are causing that need? Felons and people accused of felonies.
Bunting said that conclusion is clear from a new report his office has created.
The report details the Friday, Feb. 2 inventory of the county jail’s inmate population. Although the numbers are just for one random day, county officials believe they are representative of the typical population at the jail.
The numbers show that of the 246 inmates in the custody of Douglas County on Feb. 2, 182 were either charged or convicted of a felony in Douglas County. In addition, 11 other inmates were being held in Douglas County awaiting transfer on out-of-county warrants.
Adding those two categories together produces 193 inmates. The Douglas County Jail’s capacity is 186.
The numbers further reveal that many of those in custody likely will be in jail for quite some time, given the serious nature of their charges generally requires significant amounts of court time.
For instance, there were 14 inmates in jail on murder or attempted murder charges. It is not uncommon for murder suspects who aren’t offered or can’t make bail to be in jail for more than a year while their criminal cases progress.
County officials believe the jail inventory shows a large number of inmates charged with offenses that members of the public would agree shouldn’t be subject to pretrial release programs, house arrest or other such initiatives. Among those charges are:
• Rape: 4 inmates
• Indecent liberties with or sexual exploitation of a child: 7 inmates
• Aggravated assault/battery: 21 inmates
• Aggravated assault/battery on a law enforcement officer: 4 inmates
• Aggravated robbery/robbery: 11 inmates
• Aggravated burglary: 4 inmates
• Assault, battery and domestic battery: 32 inmates
• Assault/battery on a law enforcement officer: 7 inmates
• Burglary: 9 inmates
• Felony theft: 8 inmates.
• Criminal threat: 6 inmates
• Distribution or possession of opiates and heroin: 30 inmates
Opponents of the jail expansion don’t deny that there’s a need for those accused of serious crimes to be in jail. But Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a group that opposes the jail expansion, said the one-day snapshot of the jail’s population based on inmates’ charges was of limited value.
The inventory doesn't provide answers of why the jail's population started increasing so rapidly in 2015. Magnuson said more data-driven research into the delays in criminal case processing in Douglas County District Court and other factors contributing to the increase was needed before the county considered a jail expansion.
Indeed, there are questions about how long it takes to resolve some cases in Douglas County District Court. On Feb. 2, one first-degree murder suspect logged his 1,054th day in the county jail, earning the distinction of being the longest-serving inmate in county custody.
As previously reported, statistics from the state’s judicial office show that in fiscal year 2017, 12.8 percent of all felony cases in Douglas County District Court were pending for more than 12 months. Of the 31 judicial districts in the state, that was the sixth highest rate. It was the highest rate of any of the urban counties in Kansas. Local judicial officials have yet to explain the reasons behind those numbers.
The Feb. 2 report does show there are a significant number of inmates in the jail whose most serious offenses are misdemeanors. The daily log showed that there were 53 inmates who were in jail for nothing more serious than a misdemeanor offense.
The numbers, however, also show there are very few who are awaiting trial on a misdemeanor case. In other words, the number of people who are sitting in jail on a relatively minor offense because they can’t make bail was small on this particular day. Of the 53 misdemeanor inmates, only six of them were awaiting trial in Douglas County District Court. The remaining 47 were serving court-ordered sentences. Unlike most sentences for felony offenses, sentences for misdemeanors are served in a county jail rather than a state prison.
Mike Brouwer, director of the jail’s re-entry program, said the low number of people awaiting court cases reflected the success of the county’s pretrial release program, which targets newly arrested misdemeanor offenders and nonperson felony offenders for release from the jail with no bond and under various levels of supervision. It was introduced in late 2016, and there are now about 100 people diverted to pretrial release at any given time, he said.
It is probable some of the six misdemeanor inmates in jail Feb. 2 who were awaiting trial were later released through the program, Brouwer said. Those newly arrested inmates were being assessed for release when the inventory was completed, he said.
The longest-serving pretrial inmate on the misdemeanor primary list was a 22-year-old woman who had been in jail for 15 days after being arrested on a charge of shoplifting. She had past arrests for DUI and driving on a suspended license and two failures to appear.
As for the 47 people serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes, in some cases those sentences can be significant. On Feb. 2, there were eight inmates who had already served 100 days or more on misdemeanor sentences. The longest-serving inmate had served 302 days for misdemeanor theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and interference with a law enforcement officer, among other charges.
For some, that may raise questions about why judges are handing down such sentences for misdemeanor offenses. The sheriff’s office plays no role in the sentencing of inmates, but Bunting said looking at the detailed histories of each inmate is helpful in understanding why judges hand down such sentences.
“We do have individuals here whose primary charges appears to be lesser offenses,” he said. “If you dig into why they are in custody, you’ll find multiple charges. They are lumped into one of these misdemeanor charges, but they have other things going on, too.”
Sixteen of the inmates convicted of misdemeanors were serving time for traffic offenses, such as driving on a suspended license, having no insurance, trying to flee police, hit-and-run or tampering with an interlock device.
Many of those incarcerated for traffic or other misdemeanor offenses got there because they failed to appear for court dates and have racked up multiple offenses.
“People may say, ‘They are just in there for traffic offenses,’” Bunting said. “Yes, but it’s the third time they’ve been arrested for driving while suspended or they’ve had multiple failures to appear. The judges do want to give people chances. But I think they reach a point when people keep doing the same thing over and over again, that they say, ‘You need to spend a little time in jail.’”
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• March 12, 2018 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority