District attorney says decrease in criminal filing has no bearing on jail population

Douglas County Jail

Despite what a quick glance at figures may suggest, Douglas County hasn’t seen a dramatic decrease in the number of cases resulting in jail time for defendants, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson told county commissioners last week.

Branson’s comments were made at a County Commission work session on the expansion of the Douglas County Jail, a possible mental health crisis intervention center and creation of a mental-health court. County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said one of the purposes of the work session was to address “misinformation” about the three topics.

Among those was a figure cited in a Feb. 10 Lawrence Journal-World guest editorial that stated there was a 42 percent decrease in criminal case filings in Douglas County District Court from 2007 to 2014.

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson

There has been a reduction of about 400 to 500 criminal cases in the past decade, but not in cases that land offenders in jail, Branson said. When he took office in 2005, his office had about 2,000 criminal filings a year. In 2015, the district attorney’s office handled about 1,500, he said.

The vast majority of that decrease can be attributed to his office now filing drunken driving, habitual offender and many other cases arising from vehicle stops in traffic court, Branson said.

“We’re still filing those cases,” Branson said. “There are about 400 to 500 cases a year we are no longer filing as criminal cases but now in traffic court. They can include cases that are felonies.”

What hasn’t changed is that drivers arrested for DUI or as habitual violators still end up in the county jail, where many can’t make bail, Branson said.

Another factor was the city of Lawrence’s 2005 decision to issue citations for first-time marijuana possession rather than refer them for criminal filings, Branson said. That action, which his office supported, accounted for another 50 criminal filings a year the District Attorney’s Office no longer files.

DUI convictions do have a bearing on the county jail’s population because all have mandatory sentences unless first-time offenders are offered diversion, Branson said.

The county and his office do attempt to keep offenders of low-level offenses with no criminal history out of jail through diversion, Branson said. It is offered to first-time DUI offenders when available and to those involved in low-level criminal filings, such as theft, battery and domestic situations, Branson said.

Those on diversion sometimes end up in jail for failing to pay fines or otherwise violating the terms of their diversion, Branson said. Those inmates can be in custody for two or three days before being released to complete their diversion programs, Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern said.

There are other factors outside of the county’s control that is lengthening the stays of those awaiting trial and denied or unable to afford bail, Branson and Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Robert Fairchild said. The state has lengthened a defendant’s right to a speedy trial from 90 to 150 days and has also reduced the compensation rate of defense attorneys, which also has prolonged jail time as the court has more difficulty finding lawyers willing to take on criminal defense cases, they said.

Also causing delays in scheduling trials is the backlog at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s forensic lab and shortage of qualified mental-health evaluators at Larned State Hospital, Branson and Fairchild said.

“Until we figure out if you are safe to be in the community, you are going to be in jail,” Branson said. “We can wait six months to get someone evaluated.”