Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County is at odds with a decadelong national trend of declining inmate populations in city and county jails, although its incarceration rate is lower than that of the U.S. overall, a recently released U.S. Justice Department report revealed.

The Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice released a report last month of the nation’s city and county jail incarceration rate. It is a statistical report only with no commentary on what is contributing to the trends presented.

The DOJ report found there were 229 inmates in city and county jails per 100,000 U.S. residents as of midyear 2016. That was a 3.4 percent decline in the national incarceration rate from the 237 inmates per 100,000 residents reported in midyear 2012, the study finds.

The DOJ report also found there were 740,700 inmates incarcerated in city and county jails during the midyear 2016 count. That was a decrease from the 785,500 reported in midyear 2008, which was the highest number recorded since 1982.

There is nothing about that national trend that is recognizable in Douglas County, which saw its daily average inmate population increase 81 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to the jail’s 2016 annual report. The Douglas County Jail had an average daily count of 237 inmates for June, or midyear, 2016. That compared to an average daily population of 131 inmates for June 2012.

With the U.S. Census Bureau estimating the county’s population to be 119,440 on July 1, 2016, the county’s June 2016 incarceration rate per 100,000 residents was 198.

Jail bookings down

The county’s jail booking numbers did conform to the national trend. The DOJ report states 10.6 million people were booked into the nation’s city and county jails in 2016. That continued a downward trend from 2008, when 13.6 million people were booked into local jails across the nation.

In Douglas County, bookings peaked at 6,392 in 2006. Bookings have fallen in recent years from 5,997 in 2013 to 5,329 in 2016, which was the third lowest number since 2000.

The DOJ report was released as Douglas County prepares to put a half-cent sales tax referendum before county voters this spring. If approved, the sales tax will fund the $44 million expansion of the county jail and an $11 million behavioral health campus.

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said the report does show that Douglas County’s incarceration rate — the number of people in jail per 100,000 people — is below the national average. Douglas County’s rate of 198 per 100,000 in 2016 was about 13 percent below the national average of 229 inmates per 100,000.

“We are still working to get our numbers down,” she said. “We have almost emptied the jail of those awaiting trial for lower-level offenses. There is a false narrative out there, this (the jail expansion) is about mass incarceration. We are not Saline County where they had an incarceration rate of 600 before they started working with us about how to get their numbers down to our level.”

As for why Douglas County’s jail population is growing while the national average is declining, Thellman said the numbers had to be considered in the context of its location between Shawnee County and the Kansas City metropolitan area, noting out-of-county inmates accounted for 30 percent of the jail’s population.

Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, one of four local organizations in the Jail No coalition opposing the referendum, said the DOJ report highlighted the need for an outside comprehensive study into the county’s criminal justice system before any jail expansion was considered. The county has not been able to explain why its jail population is increasing contrary to the national experience and while overall bookings are decreasing, he said.

“I think this report is another data point that stresses to me that we get it right the first time,” he said. “We need to identify what is driving incarceration if we want to do more than a stopgap response.”

It would be a mistake to commit the county’s remaining sales tax authority to a jail expansion only to find it wasn’t needed, as Johnson County learned after investing in expanded adult and juvenile detention centers, Magnuson said.

Racial disparities

The DOJ report also listed 2016 year-end incarceration rates by race in city and county jails. Blacks had an incarceration rate of 599 per 100,000 residents, and the Native American incarceration rate was 359 per 100,000. Blacks were incarcerated at a rate 3.5 times greater than whites at year-end 2016, the study finds.

Douglas County’s 2016 jail report shows 902 blacks and 320 Native Americans were booked into the jail in 2016. Black inmates accounted for 15.3 percent of the year’s bookings while blacks made up 4.6 percent of the county’s population, according to the Census Bureau. Native Americans accounted for 5.4 percent of 2016 bookings while accounting for 2.7 percent of the county’s population.

The DOJ report concluded with data indicating 80 percent of the 915,400 beds available in local jails were occupied in 2016, compared to the 95 percent occupancy level reported in 2007. The decline was attributed to jail expansions and falling inmate populations. The report estimates 17 percent of the nation’s local jails were in the same situation as Douglas County and operating at or above capacity.