Your Turn: Jail expansion is the wrong strategy

At a time of falling crime rates, Douglas County is already spending far too much on incarceration and far too little on other urgently needed community resources. Building an unnecessary $30 million jail expansion now would be a costly mistake that would harm our community for decades.

According to Kansas Bureau of Investigation reports, crime in Douglas County fell more than 36 percent from 2007 through 2014. That includes a 23 percent reduction in violent crimes and a 38 percent reduction in property crimes.

But during that same time, the number of people incarcerated at our county jail fell only 8 percent, and our jail’s budget grew 15 percent. The budget for the sheriff’s other law enforcement activities grew 18 percent. Similarly, from 2007 through 2014, criminal case filings in Douglas County District Court (as reported to the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration) fell 42 percent, but our district attorney’s expenditures rose 17 percent.

What causes a reduction in crime? The Brennan Center for Justice released an in-depth report in 2015 that showed increased incarceration was responsible for less than 1 percent of the crime reduction nationally between 2000 and 2013. By comparison, according to that same report, reduced alcohol consumption was responsible for 5 percent to 10 percent of the crime reduction in those years. Douglas County could reduce crime much more if we invested $30 million in strategies shown to reduce crime, not in failed strategies like incarceration.

In 2013, nearly 10 percent of Douglas County adults — more than 11,000 people — reported 14 or more poor mental health days in the previous 30 days, slightly higher than the state average, according to the Kansas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

If Douglas County spent the $30 million currently earmarked for the jail expansion on robust community mental health programs instead, we could provide high-quality support to those individuals in need.

County officials have said they have little power to reduce the number of people we incarcerate at our county jail, but that is simply not true. The county has insisted they have the power to divert people with serious mental illness from the jail. The county could use the very same process, which would include coordinated efforts among our courts, law enforcement, and the district attorney, to divert many low-level offenders away from incarceration. Indeed, it would likely be much easier than diversion for people with serious mental illness.

Douglas County has spent at least $60,000 on a contract with Treanor Architects to study diversion options for people with serious mental illness; the county should equally study diversion options for low-level offenders before spending $30 million on a jail expansion.

Jail logs obtained through an open records request show that nearly 60 percent of all bookings into our jail from September 2014 through December 2015 required bonds of $500 or less, suggesting the court did not consider the person to be a serious public safety risk. Nearly 10 percent of all bookings during that time were released from jail because no charges were filed. Seventeen percent of all bookings by the sheriff’s office during that time were released on the person’s own recognizance — meaning a bond amount was set, but it was then determined that the person was a low enough risk that he or she could leave the jail without posting bond.

The county has also said the rising number of people incarcerated at our jail — which has increased an astounding 50 percent since February 2015 — is the result of longer average lengths of stay. But according to the sheriff’s office, the average length of stay is currently 11.6 days, only 7 percent longer than the average length of stay in 2014 (10.9 days), when the average daily population at the jail was only 171. The very large increase in the jail population and the relatively modest increase in the average length of stay shows most of the population increase has been caused by increased incarceration for minor offenses with short lengths of stay.

Douglas County does not need a $30 million jail expansion. We should instead be talking about ways we can divert low-level offenders away from the jail, reduce our incarceration budgets, and invest more in community programs that are in dire need.

— Benet Magnuson is a Lawrence resident and the executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for vulnerable and excluded Kansans.