Rising jail populations among smaller jurisdictions such as Douglas County are contributing to mass incarceration in the United States, a spokeswoman for a national criminal justice policy organization said at a gathering Wednesday night.
Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach for In Our Backyards of the Vera Institute of Justice, spoke at Lawrence's Carnegie Building at the invitation of Justice Matters, Kansas Appleseed and the University of Kansas' Department of African and African-American Studies. Heiss said part of her role at the Vera Institute is advising municipalities like Douglas County on how to reduce the number of people they jail.
Justice Matters and Kansas Appleseed both oppose the half-cent sales tax that's been proposed as a funding source for an expansion of the Douglas County Jail. If voters approve it in this spring's referendum, the tax would fund the $44 million jail expansion as well as an $11 million behavioral health campus, and it would provide $5.1 million annually for expanded behavioral health services.
While incarceration rates in the nation’s largest cities are decreasing, Heiss said, smaller jurisdictions like Douglas County have seen increases in their jail populations over the past 45 years. Heiss said one of her group's goals is to combat that trend.
Douglas County’s incarceration rate is lower than state and national averages, Heiss acknowledged.
According to Douglas County Undersheriff Gary Bunting, the county currently incarcerates about 1.85 people per 1,000 residents, and the Prison Policy Initiative think tank has reported that in 2016, the national incarceration rate was 6.93 and the statewide rate was 6.96.
Nonetheless, Heiss said the county was trending in the wrong direction. She added that the jail issue shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, but should be interpreted as part of the national issue of mass incarceration.
“Jails are mass incarceration’s front door,” she said. “You can’t pull individual systems out of the larger problem.”
Heiss argued that evidence from other counties indicated an expanded jail would only be a stopgap measure and wouldn't solve the underlying problems driving the overcrowding. She said that although the county has been successful in diverting inmates from the jail, it needs to address its overcrowding issue more comprehensively. She said that should include a look at law enforcement contacts that lead to arrests and ways to speed up court procedures so that inmates spend less time behind bars waiting for their cases to be resolved.
The county should also examine why people of color are incarcerated at a much greater rate than their percentage of the county’s population, Heiss said.
“Across the county, they are about 3.5 times as likely to be incarcerated (as) white people,” she said.
Douglas County Jail data shows that in 2016, black inmates accounted for 15.3 percent of the jail’s population and Native Americans made up 5.4 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, blacks make up 4.6 percent of the county’s population and Native Americans make up 2.7 percent.
The money the county would spend on the jail expansion could be used more effectively on programs that would keep people out of jail, such as employment training and mental health and substance abuse programs, Heiss said.
In a phone interview with the Journal-World on Wednesday, Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said the proposed half-cent sales tax, if approved, would provide sustainable funding for the additional substance abuse and mental health programing Heiss advocated for.
“More than half the revenue the sales tax would raise would be used for behavioral health,” she said.
However, Thellman rejected the view that mass incarceration was an issue in the county, citing the county's low incarceration rate when compared to state and national averages.
“It sounds to me as confirmation that referendum opponents are using the national mass incarceration problem to hijack a local jail issue,” she said. “We do not have mass incarceration in Douglas County. It would be great to focus on the needs of Douglas County on this very important issue.”
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• April 17, 2018 — Average daily population at Douglas County Jail fell slightly in 2017 to reverse 5-year trend
• April 17 — Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate
• April 17 — Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded
• April 16 — Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed
• April 16 — What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour
• April 15 — Speakers at criminal justice, behavioral health forum look beyond jail expansion, crisis center
• April 14 — County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message
• April 11 — Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem
• April 9 — Douglas County Commission may be forced to put new mental health, tax plan on November ballot
• March 25 — Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend
• March 22 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority