Emily Kennedy started her job in December at the Douglas County Jail with a full plate and a mystery to solve.
The new data analyst for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is tasked with figuring out what seems to be a contradictory set of numbers: The Douglas County Jail is more overcrowded than ever, despite the fact that fewer people are being arrested.
How can that be? The simple answer is the amount of time people are spending in jail is increasing, which means on any given day, the jail’s inmate total is higher. In other words, fewer people are leaving the jail, which means there’s less room for new inmates.
The real conundrum is figuring out why people are staying in jail longer. Douglas County officials have a theory, one involving the state of Kansas and felons.
The state in 2015 changed the definition of what constitutes a speedy trial, with the result being that inmates can stay in jail longer awaiting a trial. Several other state-mandated changes also have hit the jail, county officials say.
The types of inmates being held in the jail also has changed. The sheriff and others contend there are more people in jail on felony offenses than in past years. Often, felony cases take longer to prosecute, and thus increase an inmate’s length of stay.
But whether those theories are correct isn’t yet certain. The stakes in getting the mystery solved are high. The county is spending more than $1 million a year to house inmates in other county jails, and the public may be asked to support a $30 million project that would fund jail expansion and other criminal justice needs.
In 2010, the sheriff office’s annual report states 5,952 people were booked into the Douglas County Jail, giving it an average daily population of 141 inmates, well below its 187-bed capacity.
The average daily population remained stable until 2014, when it increased to 171 inmates despite that year’s bookings totaling 5,880. Bookings decreased by about 1 percent, but the average daily population increased by 21 percent.
In 2015, bookings did see a slight bump to 5,908, but the average daily population grew to 194 inmates. Last year, the numbers changed more dramatically. Bookings fell to 5,329, but the average daily population swelled to 238. Since 2010, bookings had fallen by 10 percent, but the number of people in jail on any given day had risen by 68 percent.
That was a mystery that Kennedy found intriguing.
Kennedy has been studying the numbers since joining the county’s staff in December. She arrived with a doctorate in sociology from the University of Kansas, where she worked as an adjunct professor in sociology and as a KU data analyst while completing her degree.
Her hiring was a response to a number of acknowledged challenges the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office faced in sharing the data it collects on the Douglas County Jail’s inmate population with other county agencies, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, community partners and the public.
“From the time I interviewed for this job, I was drawn to the possibility of finding the explanatory factors of the swelling jail population supported by the actual data,” she said.
April 5 daily inmate population by offense
Of the inmates in the Douglas County Jail on April 5, 145 were awaiting trial and 73 were serving a sentence. Here’s a look at what those inmates were charged with.
For inmates with multiple charges, only the most serious charge is counted here.
• Battery, high risk to community: 28 pretrial inmates, 17 sentenced inmates
• Flee or attempt to elude: 4 pretrial, 5 sentenced
• Burglary and felony theft: 17 pretrial, 2 sentenced
• Misdemeanor theft: 5 pretrial, 6 sentenced
• Felony drug charge (cultivation, possession, intention to distribute opiates, opium or narcotic drug): 10 pretrial, 10 sentenced
• Aggravated crimes (crimes in which a weapon was utilized): 41 pretrial, 5 sentenced
• High felony crimes (murder, attempted murder, rape, attempted rape, indecent liberties with a child, etc.): 13 pretrial, 8 sentenced
• Misdemeanor and municipal traffic. 9 pretrial, 9 sentenced
• Warrant arrest, probation violations, and failure to appear when no underlying charge can be identified: 18 pretrial, 11 sentenced
— Source: Douglas County Sheriff's Office
County officials, including Sheriff Ken McGovern, are convinced they know the reason behind those perplexing divergent trend lines. The answer, the sheriff told the Douglas County Commission last month, were a number of state actions in the past few years.
• New mandatory sentencing guidelines.
• A state decision that those convicted of felony third-time DUI offenses would serve their time in county jails rather than Kansas Department of Corrections facilities.
• A revision of the Kansas statute defining a speedy trial in district courts that became effective in July 2015. The action revised the speedy trial standard from 90 days to 150 days, measured by the time it takes to go from arraignment to trial.
• A decrease in hourly reimbursement rates for public defenders.
But whether the numbers actually supported that theory hasn’t been clear. Kennedy said as of as a week ago, she hadn’t been asked to develop historical jail data to support those conclusions. But as the Journal-World and others asked for that data, she began to crunch the numbers. That has changed with a multiple requests regarding the length of time defendants await trial in county jail, she said.
The sheriff’s office did provide the Journal-World data that supports McGovern’s analysis. The statistics indicate average daily population and average inmate length of stay at the jail started increasing after the speedy trial definition was changed.
The average inmate’s length of stay in 2014 was 10.88 days. It increased to 11.89 days in 2015. Furthermore, the 2015 increase started with the July 1 date the speedy trial revision became effective. The jail’s average length of stay for the first six months of 2015 was 10.10 days. It increased to 14.35 during the second six months and ballooned to 15.3 days for 2016.
Daily inmate population counts also started to increase sharply during that same period, increasing from a daily average of 176 in May 2015 to 207 in July of that year and 248 by October.
McGovern told Douglas County commissioners in April that his office was having greater difficulty placing overflow inmates in the jails of other counties because they, too, were dealing with increased populations due to state changes.
That experience is not shared in all Kansas counties. The Journal-World gathered jail data from three urban counties, and the numbers show two of the three counties have witnessed a decline in both bookings and daily inmate populations, despite the new regulations from the state.
Riley County, home of Kansas State University, recorded its largest-ever average daily bed count of 102.8 in 2012, said Riley County Police Department community relations officer Alexander Robinson. That was close to the 106-bed capacity of the jail, which opened in 2001. But that number decreased to 76.9 in 2013 and 69.4 in 2014. That’s the last year jail population numbers are published on the department’s web site, but Robinson said Tuesday he had just counted 76 inmates during a visit that day. The county has not had to place inmates in the jails of other counties during his two years with the department, he said.
The average daily population in the Shawnee County Adult Detention Center has declined as the number of bookings fell from “around 11,500” three years ago to 9,500 in 2016, said Major Timothy Phelps of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections. Average daily populations fell each year from 524 in 2013 to 483 in 2016, he said.
Last year, Shawnee County put in place an automated bonding program for low-level, non-violent offenders that helped decrease its bed count, Phelps said. But otherwise, Shawnee County has not explored other alternatives to incarceration, Phelps said.
In Johnson County, the average number of people in jail has increased. But the situation is a bit different than Douglas County. In Johnson County the number of people being arrested also has increased, which hasn’t been the case in Douglas County. Johnson County's average daily population, however, is increasing at a rate significantly faster than its booking totals.
According the 2013 Johnson County Sheriff’s Office annual report, the county recorded 15,054 bookings into its two adult detention facilities and had an average daily population of 650. In 2016, 15,341 inmates were booked into Johnson County jails, and their combined average daily population count was 749 inmates. Average length of stay also increased from 17 days in 2013 to 19.3 days in 2016.
It is not immediately clear why Douglas County’s numbers differ significantly from some of the other counties.
On a number of occasions, McGovern and Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson have suggested another contributing factor for the county’s jail overcrowding. They maintain that while overall bookings are declining, those for serious crimes are increasing.
Figures from the district attorney’s support that view. In 2014, the district attorney’s office charged 340 defendants of violent felony crimes involving at least one victim. That number increased to 459 in 2015 and remained steady at 450 cases in 2016. The number of violent felony charges in Douglas County has increased by 32 percent in two years.
People convicted of a felony generally don’t serve their sentences in the Douglas County Jail. People convicted of a DUI felony are the main exception. But people awaiting trial on a felony charge generally are housed in the Douglas County Jail, if they are not out on bond. That can be a significant driver of the jail’s population numbers.
Robert Bieniecki, Douglas County criminal justice coordinator, said misdemeanor offenders were in jail for shorter periods before and after their trials. Those charged with serious felonies can occupy cells for long periods as continuances and appeals drag out the judicial process, he said.
Kennedy hasn’t yet developed data on the effects felony crimes have on the jail’s population. But Kennedy does produce daily statistical snapshots of the jail population that reveal the number of serious offenders in county custody.
For example on April 5, there were 218 inmates in custody. Of those, 90 were in jail with at least one felony charge, 102 were incarcerated on misdemeanors only and 26 people were in jail on offenses that couldn’t yet be categorized. In total, there were 145 inmates awaiting trial, and another 73 inmates sentenced and serving time.
Although the figures in the daily snapshot may not provide definitive evidence that felony crimes contribute to jail overcrowding, they do offer proof of the basic necessity of the jail, Bieniecki said.
“These are important numbers that show there is a need for a jail and some people need to be here,” he said. “I heard comments like, ‘Why not let them all out of jail?’ or ‘Why even have a jail? Let them all out on pretrial release or house arrest.’ Battery with high risk to the community, that’s a serious crime. Those people should be in jail. Just look, aggravated crimes with a weapon. I don’t think you or your neighbors want these people at home while we get them justice.”
The snapshots Kennedy provided also were valuable in developing new programs to divert inmates from jail, Bieniecki said.
“Having numbers helps when I worked on the house arrest program and when I worked on the pretrial release program,” he said. “For the house arrest program, I can look at data on sentenced people and the crime and think maybe some of these misdemeanor traffic (inmates) could be on house arrest. I can look at these pretrial and just at a glance without evaluating or doing my praxis, I can say we could potentially be up to 50 to 60 eligible inmates.”
Getting answers to the central trend-lines mystery remains a preoccupation for Kennedy as she attends to a growing list of duties, which include providing the county’s criminal justice consultant Allen Beck with data for the reports he is preparing on jail population projections and Douglas County District Court procedures, sitting on a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council subcommittee examining the incarceration rate of people of color and a mental-health subcommittee on substance abuse.
She ran data to explore whether racial bias was a factor in jail overcrowding. Although she found the data didn’t support that conclusion, Kennedy said she might run the data again for a longer period. It would be time-consuming.
“In terms of excavating our data system for historical data, that’s a bit of a challenge,” she said. “It was not built to provide that type of data. One of the things I have been doing the past five months is thinking about how I can work with our data system to improve it. We always don’t make public historical data, but we have to be able to account for it. Our ability to account for historical data does affect our ability to predict the efficiency of programming.”
April Douglas County Jail demographics
18-21, 58 (12.7 percent)
22-29, 145 (31.7 percent)
30-39, 138 (30.2 percent)
40-49, 63 (13.8 percent)
50-59, 42 (9.2 percent)
60 and older, 11 (2.4 percent)
136 female (29.8 percent)
321 male (70.2 percent)
Asian, 4 (0.9 percent)
Black, 90 (19.7 percent)
Native American, 26 (5.7 percent)
White, 337 (73.7 percent)