County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding

Douglas County Jail

Pam Weigand says in a way, the county has already expanded the Douglas County jail by bringing it to the residences of those either charged or convicted of crimes.

Weigand, director of the county criminal justice services department, said there were 88 inmates in January released from jail but fitted with electronic monitors that tracked court-ordered movement restrictions. Fifty of those were in the county’s pretrial release program; the other 38 were serving sentences handed down in Douglas County District Court or the county’s three municipal courts through the house-arrest program.

Although the electronic monitors and house arrest program account for the majority of people who are avoiding jail time, there are other county programs that are diverting some inmates from the Douglas County jail. In total there are about 150 charged or convicted individuals who currently are not serving jail time because of the county programs, which includes the behavioral health court program, said Mike Brouwer, director of the re-entry program at the jail. Of that total, on Friday, there were 109 offenders who were out as part of pretrial release programs. Most of the inmates aren’t even required to wear the electronic monitors because they are determined to be a low risk to public safety.

Despite numbers that county officials are proud of, the programs have failed to prevent the jail from regularly exceeding its 186-bed capacity by 40 to 60 inmates.

“It’s scary to think where we would be without those programs in place,” Brouwer said.

To address the jail’s capacity issues, the county has advanced a referendum asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax that would fund a $44 million expansion of the county jail and an $11 million behavioral health campus.

The jail’s space squeeze also motivated the county to start looking for alternatives to incarceration. The pretrial release program was introduced 10 months ago after a pilot program was rolled out in November 2015. The post-conviction house-arrest program started last summer with the use of electronic monitoring.

Long enough?

The numbers haven’t swayed opponents of the jail expansion. For one, all the programs are still less than a year old. That raises the question of whether the county has given the programs enough time to have their full impact on jail populations.

As previously reported, Johnson County finished a major jail expansion in 2009, bringing its capacity to 1,100 beds. Now, the Johnson County jail routinely has 300 unused beds.

There’s agreement that Johnson County’s aggressive diversion programs are the main reason behind the decrease in inmate populations. It is estimated that more than 600 people avoided jail time last year due to the Johnson County programs.

Local leaders acknowledged there may still be room for Douglas County’s pretrial release numbers to grow. But Brouwer said that would involve releasing higher-risk inmates facing felony charges because nearly all misdemeanor inmates are already being released.

“Do I think we could expand the program? Yes, but I don’t know what that number would be,” Weigand said. “It would free a few beds but not that many. It would not be enough to avoid the need to expand the jail.”

Plus, some opponents want more detailed answers about why the county’s jail populations are increasing even after implementing the pretrial release programs.

Ted Mosher, co-president of Justice Matters, a Lawrence faith-based activist group that opposes the jail expansion, said the pretrial release and home-arrest programs were implemented with the expectation the jail would be expanded. He agreed they were sincere efforts at reform but didn’t go far enough. 

The pretrial release and home arrest programs were designed to address only two aspects of the jail’s overcrowding problems, Mosher said. Justice Matters advocates for the hiring of an outside expert or organization to complete a “holistic” review of the county’s criminal justice system, he said. Such a review would study all points of contact in the county criminal justice system from arrests to final disposition of cases. There should be no jail expansion until such a review explored all avenues to decrease the jail’s population, he said.

Cash bond not required

County officials say part of the program’s success can be traced back to a change in thinking about bonds. Fewer people arrested these days are required to post a bond.

With the agreement of the county’s three municipal courts to not require bonds for the misdemeanor charges that come before them, bonding for misdemeanor offenses has all but been eliminated in Douglas County, Brouwer said. A Feb. 2 snapshot of the jail’s inmate population identified only six inmates in jail awaiting trials for misdemeanor charges, and some of those hadn’t been in jail long enough to be sent home through the pretrial release program.

Every inmate booked into the county jail is eligible to be evaluated for pretrial release, Weigand said. The process starts with a questionnaire inmates are asked to complete when they are booked into jail. It asks newly arrested inmates if they have a place to live, a job, are residents of the county, names of others living at the person’s residence and phone numbers of those who can verify living arrangements.

That information is then scored on a risk assessment evaluation form with the applicant’s current charges and criminal history. The assessment not only determines if the applicant is released but also what level of supervision they will be subject to once they go home.

It’s a much fairer, safer system than releasing inmates because they have the means to raise money for a cash bond, Brouwer said.

“What we have put in place here is as close as you can get to an evidence-based, validated program, which the key really is public safety,” he said. “When we follow this process and make decisions about who we release, we are releasing the right people and keeping the right people in jail.”

The goal of her staff is to have evaluations and recommendations available for a judge to review when an inmate makes a first appearance in court, Weigand said. The judge can, of course, alter the recommendations, sometimes at the request of the District Attorney’s Office.

The lowest of the pretrial program’s five levels of supervision requires her staff to only inform participants of court dates and monitor them for further arrests, Weigand said. Steps up the supervision ladder include more active monitoring with required telephone check-ins, periodic case management meetings and substance abuse testing.

The role of monitors

Electronic monitors in the form of ankle bracelets are an option in the third level of “intensive” supervision, which can also include surveillance. Electronic monitors are required for every charge involving violence or for a released inmate with two or more past violent convictions. Monitors are a required feature of the fourth and fifth levels of supervision. Both confine participants to house arrest, although the fourth level does allow the participant to go to work. The fifth level requires a cash bond.

On Feb. 2, 49 of 92 pretrial release participants were classified in the lowest two supervision levels; 41 were assigned third-level intensive supervision; and there was one participant each in the fourth and fifth levels of high-risk maximum supervision, Weigand said.

The GPS-equipped electronic monitors allow judges to impose a range of restrictions on released inmates both before and after trials, Weigand said. They can be used to enforce curfews, ensure compliance orders to stay clear of certain areas, allow the pretrial defendant to go to work and stay employed or restrict a person to a tight home confinement. They can be used in tandem with drug use-detecting sweat patches or an in-home breath analyzer with facial-recognition software.

“The technology is pretty amazing,” Weigand said. “It’s less restrictive than being in jail. There’s no privacy there.”

Electronic monitoring also costs the county much less than incarceration, Weigand said. It cost the county $20,000 to have her staff supervise the 88 people ordered in January to some level of house arrest and another $15,000 for their monitoring devices. It would have cost the county $162,000 to incarcerate those individuals in the county jail.

“There’s no comparison,” she said. “The savings are huge.”

On March 2, Weigand reported that in the previous week, only two of the 109 pretrial release participants failed to comply with the conditions of their release or were arrested on new charges. Although the program has not been established long enough to develop good performance data, that week’s noncompliance rate was consistent with the success rate of an established program, Brouwer said.

“We modeled the program off one in Johnson County,” he said. “It has a 2 percent failure rate.”