Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says

Douglas County Jail

A story related last month at a Douglas County Commission meeting of an inmate in the county jail has criminal justice officials shaking their heads.

The story, shared during public comment, is of an unidentified Lawrence man who has been in jail for weeks following his arrest on a single charge of possession of marijuana. The story doesn’t add up, Undersheriff Gary Bunting and Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said, because in Lawrence, people are issued citations for simple marijuana possession, not arrested.

“There’s this misconception out there that the jail is filled with people arrested for smoking marijuana,” Bunting said. “That’s just not the case.”

Bunting has documentation that pot smokers or other misdemeanor offenders, especially those awaiting trial, are not filling up the Douglas County jail. Such inmates aren’t the reason the county is seeking voter approval this spring of a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million, 179-bed expansion of the jail, he said.

What type of inmates are causing that need? Felons and people accused of felonies.

To get a better idea of what types of inmates are in custody in the Douglas County Jail, the Journal-World examined data from the Sheriff's Office about the 246 inmates who were in custody on Feb. 2, 2018. Here's what we found out about those inmates.

Bunting said that conclusion is clear from a new report his office has created.

The report details the Friday, Feb. 2 inventory of the county jail’s inmate population. Although the numbers are just for one random day, county officials believe they are representative of the typical population at the jail.

The numbers show that of the 246 inmates in the custody of Douglas County on Feb. 2, 182 were either charged or convicted of a felony in Douglas County. In addition, 11 other inmates were being held in Douglas County awaiting transfer on out-of-county warrants.

Adding those two categories together produces 193 inmates. The Douglas County Jail’s capacity is 186.

The numbers further reveal that many of those in custody likely will be in jail for quite some time, given the serious nature of their charges generally requires significant amounts of court time.

For instance, there were 14 inmates in jail on murder or attempted murder charges. It is not uncommon for murder suspects who aren’t offered or can’t make bail to be in jail for more than a year while their criminal cases progress.

County officials believe the jail inventory shows a large number of inmates charged with offenses that members of the public would agree shouldn’t be subject to pretrial release programs, house arrest or other such initiatives. Among those charges are:

• Rape: 4 inmates

• Indecent liberties with or sexual exploitation of a child: 7 inmates

• Aggravated assault/battery: 21 inmates

• Aggravated assault/battery on a law enforcement officer: 4 inmates

• Aggravated robbery/robbery: 11 inmates

• Aggravated burglary: 4 inmates

• Assault, battery and domestic battery: 32 inmates

• Assault/battery on a law enforcement officer: 7 inmates

• Burglary: 9 inmates

• Felony theft: 8 inmates.

• Criminal threat: 6 inmates

• Distribution or possession of opiates and heroin: 30 inmates

Opponents of the jail expansion don’t deny that there’s a need for those accused of serious crimes to be in jail. But Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a group that opposes the jail expansion, said the one-day snapshot of the jail’s population based on inmates’ charges was of limited value.

The inventory doesn’t provide answers of why the jail’s population started increasing so rapidly in 2015. Magnuson said more data-driven research into the delays in criminal case processing in Douglas County District Court and other factors contributing to the increase was needed before the county considered a jail expansion.

Indeed, there are questions about how long it takes to resolve some cases in Douglas County District Court. On Feb. 2, one first-degree murder suspect logged his 1,054th day in the county jail, earning the distinction of being the longest-serving inmate in county custody.

As previously reported, statistics from the state’s judicial office show that in fiscal year 2017, 12.8 percent of all felony cases in Douglas County District Court were pending for more than 12 months. Of the 31 judicial districts in the state, that was the sixth highest rate. It was the highest rate of any of the urban counties in Kansas. Local judicial officials have yet to explain the reasons behind those numbers.

The Feb. 2 report does show there are a significant number of inmates in the jail whose most serious offenses are misdemeanors. The daily log showed that there were 53 inmates who were in jail for nothing more serious than a misdemeanor offense.

The numbers, however, also show there are very few who are awaiting trial on a misdemeanor case. In other words, the number of people who are sitting in jail on a relatively minor offense because they can’t make bail was small on this particular day. Of the 53 misdemeanor inmates, only six of them were awaiting trial in Douglas County District Court. The remaining 47 were serving court-ordered sentences. Unlike most sentences for felony offenses, sentences for misdemeanors are served in a county jail rather than a state prison.

Mike Brouwer, director of the jail’s re-entry program, said the low number of people awaiting court cases reflected the success of the county’s pretrial release program, which targets newly arrested misdemeanor offenders and nonperson felony offenders for release from the jail with no bond and under various levels of supervision. It was introduced in late 2016, and there are now about 100 people diverted to pretrial release at any given time, he said.

It is probable some of the six misdemeanor inmates in jail Feb. 2 who were awaiting trial were later released through the program, Brouwer said. Those newly arrested inmates were being assessed for release when the inventory was completed, he said.

The longest-serving pretrial inmate on the misdemeanor primary list was a 22-year-old woman who had been in jail for 15 days after being arrested on a charge of shoplifting. She had past arrests for DUI and driving on a suspended license and two failures to appear.

As for the 47 people serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes, in some cases those sentences can be significant. On Feb. 2, there were eight inmates who had already served 100 days or more on misdemeanor sentences. The longest-serving inmate had served 302 days for misdemeanor theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and interference with a law enforcement officer, among other charges.

For some, that may raise questions about why judges are handing down such sentences for misdemeanor offenses. The sheriff’s office plays no role in the sentencing of inmates, but Bunting said looking at the detailed histories of each inmate is helpful in understanding why judges hand down such sentences.

“We do have individuals here whose primary charges appears to be lesser offenses,” he said. “If you dig into why they are in custody, you’ll find multiple charges. They are lumped into one of these misdemeanor charges, but they have other things going on, too.”

Sixteen of the inmates convicted of misdemeanors were serving time for traffic offenses, such as driving on a suspended license, having no insurance, trying to flee police, hit-and-run or tampering with an interlock device.

Many of those incarcerated for traffic or other misdemeanor offenses got there because they failed to appear for court dates and have racked up multiple offenses.

“People may say, ‘They are just in there for traffic offenses,'” Bunting said. “Yes, but it’s the third time they’ve been arrested for driving while suspended or they’ve had multiple failures to appear. The judges do want to give people chances. But I think they reach a point when people keep doing the same thing over and over again, that they say, ‘You need to spend a little time in jail.'”