You can count Peggy Kittel, the chief judge for Douglas County District Court, among those who are concerned about crowding issues at the Douglas County Jail.
You can also count Kittel among those who have seen signs, at least anecdotal, that violent crime is on the rise in Douglas County. But don’t yet count Kittel among those who say changes to the Douglas County court system could help alleviate inmate overcrowding and lessen the need for a $44 million expansion of the jail.
In an interview with the Journal-World, Kittel expressed skepticism about several of the recommendations from a county-hired consultant who looked at ways to improve the efficiency of court proceedings, with a goal of reducing the number of days inmates are held in the jail.
“I don’t think any judge felt the model would be of any value,” Kittel said of a proposed categorization and priority trial system the consultant said could be effective in Douglas County.
Kittel also said she didn’t have a definitive opinion about a set of statistics that show felony cases are taking longer to be resolved in Douglas County than in many other counties in the state.
Statistics from the Kansas Judicial Branch showed that in fiscal year 2017, the number of felony cases that took more than 12 months to resolve stood at 12.8 percent. That was the highest percentage of any urban county in the state, and was the sixth highest of the state’s 31 judicial districts. The 2017 numbers were in contrast to 2014 totals when only 4.8 percent of felony cases in Douglas County took longer than 12 months to resolve.
Questions have been raised about whether the jail’s crowding issues could be alleviated if felony court cases were resolved more quickly. Kittel didn’t weigh in on that specific question, but rather reminded people that sometimes procedural delays can serve the cause of justice.
“Plea agreements take time,” she said. “Pushing cases out might not be a bad thing when the district attorney is looking to come up with a just resolution for a case.”
Other county officials also have struggled to explain why cases are taking longer and the impact it is having on the jail’s population. However, Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern has pointed to a change in state law that changed the definition of a speedy trial from 90 days to 150 days. The increases in jail population roughly coincide with that definition change.
Kittel, though, doesn’t think the change made much difference in District Court proceedings.
“Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like that had a huge impact in cases being (dragged) out,” she said. “A defendant can always waive the right to a speedy trial. When someone wants a trial, we set a trial.”
Kittel will not be taking a position on the upcoming sales tax election to fund the proposed jail expansion and mental health programs.
“It’s my opinion, it’s against judicial ethics to weigh in yea or nay,” she said. “It’s for the legislative branch to figure out.”
Nonetheless, Kittel does have concerns about conditions at the jail.
“As for concerns about how it affects the bench, I am concerned there is only one women’s pod available for all women,” she said. “You have women in jail for DUIs in the same pod as someone there for murder. I’m concerned about sending inmates to other counties and the difficulties that creates in moving cases along.”
To address the jail’s capacity and structural 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.
Like other components of the county’s criminal justice system, the District Court of six state-funded District Court judges and two county-funded pro tem judges has come under scrutiny as the County Commission and those opposed to the jail expansion looked for explanations for the rapid increase in the county’s inmate population that started in 2014. The faith-based activist group Justice Matters, which opposes the jail expansion, maintains the court should be part of an outside consultant's comprehensive review of the county’s entire criminal justice system.
A new judge
The scrutiny has brought change. The County Commission last summer approved Kittel’s request to fund a second pro tem judge with the goal of giving District Court judges more time to spend on criminal proceedings.
Pro tem judges have more limited docket authority than District Court judges and can’t be involved in felony criminal cases beyond first appearances at which defendants enter pleas on charges. However, Kittel said a shuffling of duties since Bethany Roberts joined the court in January as its second pro tem judge was having a positive affect on criminal court dockets.
“It has given Judges (Sally) Pokorny and (James) McCabria more time to focus on their felony dockets and time to expedite those,” she said.
That should allow the court to improve on what is already an improving record of disposing misdemeanor or felony cases through the dismissal of charges, diversions, plea agreements or trial decisions, Kittel said. While 2017 statistics showed some challenges of disposing of felony cases, when you look at statistics combine both felony and misdemeanor cases, the numbers look much better.
In 2017, 95.8 percent of 1,202 misdemeanor and felony criminal cases were disposed. That’s up from the 88 percent of the 1,217 misdemeanor or felony criminal cases filed in 2016.
Gun cases rising
McGovern and Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson have said another reason for jail overcrowding was an increase in serious felony crime. Kittel said she agreed with that assessment, although she doesn’t have numbers to support the conclusion.
“Anecdotally, it seems like in my courtroom, we do have more serious charges involving firearms, which have their own implications as far as danger to the community,” Kittel said.
Cases involving serious charges are more complicated and take longer as defense attorneys attempt to spare defendants long prison sentences, Kittel said. Recent technological advancements have added to the delays.
“When I started as a defense attorney, there was no such thing as DNA evidence or dash-cam video,” she said. “And now we’re getting body cams. All that takes time to review and process. It can really slow the process down.”
District Court processes were the focus of a report consultant Allen Beck completed for the county. Released in January, it suggested a number of changes to increase the efficiency of criminal proceedings. Beck proposed the county jail provide judges a weekly census of the jail’s pretrial inmate population, broken down into categories reflecting the seriousness of charges inmates faced.
Beck also proposed the court look to prioritize cases involving incarcerated inmates and develop a process of scheduling trials that would seek to clear space in the jail by expediting cases that could be easily disposed.
Kittel said there was little of value in the proposals, noting the categorized and priority trial system Beck cites was used in Tarrant County, Texas. That county includes Fort Worth and is much different than Douglas County.
“On their (Tarrant County) website, the clearance rate they report is not significantly different than ours even with that system,” she said.
The District Court already gives priority to those cases involving incarcerated defendants, Kittel said. In addition, judges have weekly docket reviews with the goal of disposing cases.
Kittel said the court has embraced the pretrial release and post-conviction home-arrest programs. She and other judges developing a comfort level with pretrial release, which releases without bail inmates in the county jail arrested on misdemeanor or low-level felony charges who are found not to be a flight or public-safety risk.
“It’s nice the pretrial program has given us an option we didn’t have before,” she said. “Everyone here on the bench appreciates we have that option.”
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