Town hall meeting offers insight into future of county jail population

A research team said Monday that on any given day in 2016, around 140 people in the Douglas County justice system may be classified as seriously mentally ill and qualify for treatments alternative to jail.

Four months ago, the team consisting of representatives from Chicago’s Huskey & Associates, Kansas University, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center were asked to examine a potential county jail expansion and mental health crisis intervention center projects within Douglas County.

The group examined four nonconsecutive months of data gathered on all people booked into the Douglas County Jail during that time, said Bobbie Huskey of Huskey & Associates. The information was used to describe characteristics of a seriously mentally ill (SMI) person, quantify how much of the jail’s population fits that description and to quantify how many in that population could be treated outside the jail.

On Monday night, Douglas County officials hosted a town hall meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1000 Massachusetts St., to share the team’s findings and open the floor to public comments and questions.

About 75 people attended the meeting.

Over the four months examined, 1,971 bookings were scrutinized, Huskey said, and 18 percent of those bookings were classified as SMI.

Of those classified as SMI, less than 20 percent of those were charged with a violent felony or misdemeanor offense, 100 percent had previously received mental health treatment, about 77 percent had a co-occurring substance use disorder and 16.8 percent were booked into the jail more than one time during the four months examined, Huskey said.

Matching population numbers of those in custody classified as SMI with screening criteria for potential mental health court, Huskey said just under 13 percent of the Douglas County Jail population may qualify for alternative treatments.

Those alternative treatments may include opting to go through mental health court, receive aid through private intervention, crisis intervention and more, Huskey said.

Considering an average of 90 days spent in specialty court and adjusting for growth in the jail population, Huskey said that from 2016 to 2026, the number of SMI people who could be treated outside the jail on a daily basis would grow from 140 to 150.

Because of the wide variety of alternative treatments and differing facilities that may house an SMI person, those numbers do not translate to “bed space,” Huskey said.

County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she was pleased with the information and it will help the county in deciding what steps to take next.

Thellman also said the area’s population of those who are SMI is larger than those held in the jail and the upcoming projects may also benefit others in need.