Editorial: Jail numbers not very clear

Hopefully a new data analyst can shed some light on population counts as voters are asked to support a $30 million jail.

Douglas County is right to hire a data analyst to study inmate population trends at the county jail. Such data will be key in understanding the need for a new $30 million jail, which voters are likely to decide at some point.

Most importantly, new data analyst Emily Kennedy must explain why even though bookings into the jail have fallen 10 percent since 2010, the daily inmate population has increased 69 percent in that time. Though county officials have reasonable theories to explain some of the increase, the numbers are so out of kilter that they suggest fixing judicial processes is a more pressing priority than building a new jail. It certainly would be less costly to taxpayers in the short and long term.

In 2010, the Douglas County Sheriff Office’s annual report showed 5,952 people were booked into the county jail, giving the jail an average daily population of 141 inmates, well below the 187-bed capacity. The average daily population remained stable until 2014, when it increased to 171 inmates despite only 5,880 bookings. Last year, bookings were just 5,329, but the average daily population was an eye-popping 238. Not only did taxpayers have to pay for a jail operating at maximum capacity, they spent more than $1 million to house Douglas County inmates at other facilities.

County officials say two factors have driven up the inmate population even though arrests have decreased. First, in 2015 Kansas increased the definition of a speedy trial in district court from 90 to 150 days, meaning inmates can spend more time in jail awaiting trial. Second, Sheriff Ken McGovern and District Attorney Charles Branson said that arrests for violent felonies have increased significantly in the last couple of years. Violent felonies require higher bonds that often result in longer pretrial incarceration.

Indeed, violent arrests spiked 32 percent from 2014 to 2016 even as overall bookings declined 9.4 percent.

But while those factors certainly explain some of the discrepancy between bookings and inmate populations, they don’t account for a 69 percent spike. And it’s not as if neighboring counties are seeing similar trends. Riley and Shawnee counties have seen decreases in bookings and jail populations.

The data suggest something is amiss in Douglas County, and it will be interesting to see the results of Kennedy’s work. But based upon the numbers and the county’s own explanations, it’s hard not to be concerned that Douglas County’s jail population is being artificially inflated in part by the way bonds are set and trials are scheduled. There are important questions the county could answer on that front. Would an additional judge in Douglas County District Court significantly reduce the amount of time inmates spend waiting in jail for a trial? How much would it cost to staff and equip another division in Douglas County District Court? Typically, the cost of adding a judge would be a state responsibility. That’s not likely given the state’s own budget problems. But it is possible the county could fund a new judge and still come out money ahead if it alleviates the need for a jail expansion.

Certainly, it seems prudent for the county to explain clearly the disconnect between booking volume and the jail’s population before asking voters to support a $30 million jail. In that regard, hiring Kennedy to provide that analysis was a smart move.