County leaders receive update on efforts to reduce jail stays for people with serious mental illness

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Douglas County still has work to do in its efforts to reduce the number of people in its jail with serious mental illness, county leaders heard Wednesday.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission received a report detailing the number of jail bookings and other data for people with serious mental illness, or SMI. The data is being tracked as part of the county’s latest effort to reduce jail stays for people with SMI, which is part of the nationwide Stepping Up project.

County data analyst Matt Cravens told the commission that from January to March 2021, people with SMI represented about 11% of total bookings at the jail, while the target is for them to represent 8.1%. During that same time period, people with SMI represented 31% of the overall population of the jail, which he said was a higher figure than the bookings percentage because people with SMI tend to remain in the jail longer.

“That’s something we can try to work on bringing down,” Cravens said.

Specifically, he said people with SMI remain in the jail about 29 days on average, compared to the overall average stay of 12 days. He said people with SMI sometimes remain in jail longer while they await competency evaluations to be transferred to the state psychiatric facility in Larned, which he said skews the average.

According to a previous county news release, the county has set a goal to reduce the average lengths of jail stays for people with SMI to 25 days and recidivism to 62%. Cravens did not share figures about recidivism, but said the county planned to add a function to track recidivism in the future.

The data came from a recently unveiled dashboard that tracks inmates with mental health issues. Cravens and Sheriff Jay Armbrister discussed the SMI dashboard as well as another dashboard that tracks data about local arrests, jail stays, demographics and other data. Both dashboards are available on the sheriff’s office website,

Douglas County joined Stepping Up’s new multiyear initiative Set, Measure, Achieve in September 2020. Stepping Up is a national project by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation that the county joined in October 2015.

In other business, the commission received an overview of the Criminal Justice Services Department from department head Pam Weigand. The overview included information about both adult and juvenile criminal justice programs, including the Juvenile Detention Center and the JDC’s Day School program.

As the Journal-World reported in April 2019, Weigand has previously told commissioners that use of the detention center is waning, largely because of juvenile justice reform measures and a greater number of alternatives to incarceration for children. Weigand told the commission that currently there were only five youths at the detention center, only one of whom was from Douglas County. She said the Day School program has 20 youths enrolled, 13 of whom were assigned for truancy issues. Weigand said that when it came to the future of the detention center, an issue to consider would be that the license for the Day School is tied to the detention center, so closing the center would also close the school.


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