Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can’t use them

Douglas County Jail

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden knows he has something the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office covets.

About 300 of the 1,100-beds in the Johnson County Adult Detention Center at New Century AirCenter near Gardner are empty. Meanwhile about 30 miles away, the 186-bed Douglas County Jail is constantly over capacity, forcing the county to “farm out” about 50 inmates daily to the jails of other counties.

A solution seems simple. Instead of shipping inmates as far afield as Holton and Garnett, Douglas County could place them seven miles east of the county line or perhaps lease unused space in the Johnson County Adult Detention Center. It would save the sheriff’s office travel time in transporting inmates and make it easier for family members to visit incarcerated loved ones.

Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern is a friend, Hayden said, and he would like to help.

“I’ve talked to the sheriff,” he said. “I love that man. He’s really in a bind. I wish there was a way we could help.”

The Johnson County Jail averages about 750 inmates on weekdays and balloons to about 800 on weekends, said Hayden, who was elected to his office in November 2016. That means the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office has at least 300 empty beds, but Hayden said it can’t fill them with inmates from Douglas County or anywhere else. The limiting factor is staffing, he said.

“We have room for 1,100, but we’re staffed for 800,” he said. “If we go over 818, we have to hire more staff.”

Officers in the Johnson County Jail are full deputies and not correctional officers, Hayden said. As such, they go through his office’s training and full state academy training, he said. It would take more than a year before he had enough officers trained to accept more inmates.

It’s not practical for Johnson County to take that step to house Douglas County inmates, because the officers wouldn’t be needed once the jail in Lawrence was expanded, Hayden said.

“We’re not going to hire temporary officers,” he said. “We’ve been down that road, and it didn’t go well.”

The Johnson County Commission insists the sheriff’s office be fully compensated should it ever house farmed out inmates, Hayden said. It would be more expensive than the jails of other counties because of the higher cost of living in Johnson County and the level of training its jail officers receive, he said.

“We would charge as much as $75 a day for a minimum security no-problem inmate who doesn’t bring any health issues or behavioral issues,” he said. “If there’s more management required, the price goes up.”

Douglas County Undersheriff Gary Bunting told the Journal-World in November the average cost of farming out inmates to other counties was $54 a day.

Leasing space not an option

But what if Douglas County provided the staff for the 300 Johnson County beds it would use? In other words, the county would just lease the space from Johnson County.

Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan said he spoke this month to Hayden about the possibility of using the open cells at New Century, including leasing unused space. He learned a lease arrangement was not an option, he said.

It is a no-go because the Johnson County Adult Detention Center’s design doesn’t provide any areas for Douglas County’s exclusive use, Hayden said.

“The problem with that, the facility, once you get inside the secured area, it’s all open,” he said.

The design would have Douglas County officers working beside Johnson County deputies without the same training or custody operational procedures, Hayden said. That was not something any sheriff would accept, he said.

He’s sensitive to Douglas County’s plight because Johnson County was in the same situation a decade ago, Hayden said. The jail was at capacity before the second phase that expanded it to 1,100 beds opened in 2009 and still had to farm out inmates when the extra beds were first available, he said.

Then during the recession that followed, the jail’s population started to decline, Hayden said. The success of the jail’s 398-bed adult residential center, which the Johnson County Department of Corrections manages, played a role. The center houses inmates in work release and re-entry programs, which are two programs Douglas County offers at the jail. Another factor was Johnson County District Court’s diversion programs, Hayden said.

Those inmates who are now behind bars are there for committing more serious crimes, Hayden said.

“With all the programs offered, you almost have to work at it to get in the jail now,” he said.

A big drop in inmates

But that creates another serious question for residents: Is Douglas County at risk of spending millions to expand its jail only to see its population dramatically shrink in future years?

What is clear is that Johnson County’s aggressive diversion programs have played a role in reducing its inmate population.

Robert Bieniecki, who came to his job as Douglas County criminal justice coordinator in 2016 after retiring as a captain in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said the Johnson County bond supervision programs play a central role in the decrease in inmate population. Data he has seen showed more than 600 people were released from jail last year through Johnson County’s bond supervision program, he said.

“If all those people were in jail, they would be overcrowded,” he said.

But Douglas County leaders say there is a key difference between Douglas and Johnson counties. Douglas County has already implemented many diversion programs before deciding to expand its jail. In Johnson County, many of those programs came after the jail was built, Douglas County officials say.

Now Douglas County officials are skeptical that their diversion programs can reduce inmate populations by enough to make a major dent. They believe the programs have reduced the jail’s population to the point those in custody are public safety risks who should be confined, Bieniecki said. Despite the success in finding alternative placements for inmates, the sheriff’s office is still faced with the need to farm out about 50 inmates a day because of overcrowding, he said.

Thus, county voters will be asked to decide the issue this spring. County residents will vote this spring on a half-cent sales tax that would fund a $44 million jail expansion, as well as an $11 million behavioral health campus, $5.1 million in behavioral health services and $1 million of the $6.1 million the jail expansion is estimated to add to its annual operational costs.

Some of Douglas County’s new diversion programs are modeled after those in Johnson County, Bieniecki said. For example, the county’s pretrial release program is similar to Johnson County’s bond supervision program, he said.

“It’s different in that they require all defendants get a bond, either they pay it themselves or through a bondsman,” he said. “We’re getting the same results, but we do it a little bit differently.”

The Douglas County pretrial release program has been successful, too, in diverting inmates from jail, Bieniecki said. There are 110 inmates currently awaiting trial out of jail, and 240 inmates have been placed in the program since it was introduced in late 2016, he said.

In addition, 16 inmates have been diverted from jail through the behavioral health court that also started in late 2016, and another 37 inmates have been placed in the post-conviction house arrest program since it was introduced last year, Bieniecki said.

Last month, Undersheriff Bunting said Johnson County’s 2017 incarceration rate per 100 residents was 1.67, while the rate in Douglas County was 1.90. Johnson County’s rate included the jail and adult residential center he said. Douglas County’s diversion programs, which became fully operational last year, contributed to a slight dip in the incarceration rate from the 1.99 rate in 2016.

Sheriff McGovern and Bunting have said one of the reasons behind the spike in the jail population was an increase in serious felony crimes while the overall crime rate has declined.

That’s true in Johnson County, too, Hayden said. This week, he was part of a discussion about how to address a “spike” in Johnson County violent crime, he said.

“Urban violent crime is settling out to the suburban areas and Lawrence is a part of that,” he said. “The things I’m seeing is narcotics and violent crime. Every serious incident I see, narcotics or mental illness is a part of it. Violent crime is something we have to address. That’s what keeps me up at night.”