Report: Council should look at ways to reduce incarceration for misdemeanors and disproportionate jailing of minorities

The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council should continue to investigate alternatives to incarceration in the Douglas County Jail for misdemeanor offenses and also should examine factors leading to a disproportionately high number of people of color being jailed, its members were told Tuesday.

The remarks came at the conclusion of a report from Jason Matejkowski, which he co-wrote with fellow Kansas University Social Welfare professor Margaret Severson. Matejkowski and Severson serve as consultants to the coordinating council. The report examined a spike in the jail’s population in the past two years.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug told the coordinating council that the report’s finding of a consistently large number of inmates being held for misdemeanor offenses confirmed the need for its ongoing review of alternative placements for those inmates.

The coordinating council has heard staff reports on a number of such initiatives since it first started meeting in March. Those pilot programs have involved a mental health court, use of ankle bracelets, house arrest and expansion of own-recognizance bonds in association with greater supervision.

In his conversations with Douglas County District Court judges, Weinaug has found they would be willing to release more misdemeanor inmates on lower bond amounts or on own-recognizance bonds if there was greater supervision to help ensure they would make their court dates, he said.

Matejkowski and Severson’s report also confirmed the disproportionate number of people of color in the jail. At 22 percent, the number was consistently 4.5 times greater than the county’s population of those demographics.

That fact led to one of the report’s conclusions that a broader inquiry is needed into the factors — such as lack of financial and social supports — that contributed to the higher incarceration rate for people of color and what could be done to alleviate that rate.

Matejkowski said he and Severson had a bit more work to do on the study. When that is done, it will be posted on the coordinating council’s website.

Also Tuesday, coordinating council members unanimously approved Douglas County Commissioner and coordinating council chairman Mike Gaughan’s nomination of KU professor Charles Epp as its newest member. The position was created after the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP requested an expert on race relations be added to the council. Epp is a professor in KU’s department of African and African-American Studies and its School of Public Affairs and Administration. The Douglas County Commission will now consider the nomination.

As for the position of coordinator for the council, the county has received 41 applications. The closing date for the position is July 5.