Some alternatives to incarceration in Douglas County Jail becoming ‘robust,’ leader says

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Pam Weigand, Douglas County's director of criminal justice services, presents a 2018 department report at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

As part of efforts to pare down the numbers of people in the Douglas County Jail in recent years, the county has launched a few new programs. One of them has grown by 67 percent in just a year.

Douglas County’s pretrial release, house arrest and behavioral health court are three of the key alternatives to incarceration.

“At any given time, with the programs in place, about 150 people who could otherwise be in jail are out at no cost to them,” Undersheriff Gary Bunting said in a meeting with the Journal-World on Feb. 19.

The programs are still fairly new, said Pam Weigand, director of Criminal Justice Services. But they’re getting “a lot more robust” — particularly pretrial release.

Weigand delivered her department’s first annual report at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Tuesday.

“We’re constantly trying to review and hopefully meet with stakeholders to make sure that things are the way that they thought they would be, or how (we can) improve things for everyone, including the people we’re serving,” Weigand said. “So I think it’s just a process, but I feel really good about it. I think we’re helping a lot of folks be successful in the community.”



Pretrial release: Where it starts

On Friday, 104 people were on pretrial release, according to a report from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Forty-five were on house arrest, and another 25 were involved in the behavioral health court. The jail’s population was 201, with 50 inmates housed in other counties’ facilities.

Not every inmate who is booked into the Douglas County Jail gets a pretrial release report. A lot of folks pay a cash bond and get released before that’s necessary, Weigand said.

Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kristen Channel said via email that those accused of almost any person crimes — such as assault, battery, criminal threat and domestic violence, for example — must come before a judge for a first appearance. That’s when defendants are formally charged, and then the judge can determine whether to release them from jail and under what conditions.

“Nearly any other charge through district court has a set bond,” Channel wrote. “If someone bonds out, they are given a court date prior to leaving the correctional facility for their first appearance in court.”

But not everyone can afford to pay the bond. In the past, that was a recipe for remaining in jail until their case was resolved. Now, people who can’t pay their bond still have a chance to get out of jail through the pretrial release program. Release is not automatic, though. CJS staff goes through a formal process to review their eligibility, and then makes a recommendation to the court.

“If they have other holds or have other warrants from other jurisdictions, then we don’t review them because they’re not eligible,” Weigand said.

What’s in the reports?

To determine an inmate’s pretrial release recommendation, staff members check the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for defendants’ criminal histories as part of a risk assessment; they then assign the defendant a low, medium or high risk score based on that number.

A grid shows recommended levels of supervision for a defendant based on that risk score matched with the severity of the crimes alleged in the affidavit from the DA’s office.

“It can take all day to get it all resolved, but usually by 4 o’clock, we’re ready to go,” Weigand said, referring to the district court’s first appearance schedule.

Defendants’ risk levels not only determine whether they are eligible for the program, but also are used to recommend how much supervision they should receive.

A pretrial release report for a person who is assessed to be low risk charged with a misdemeanor offense would likely recommend administrative supervision, which includes court reminder notifications, monitoring for a new arrest and check-ins after court hearings, according to the grid.

The recommended level of supervision escalates with higher risk scores and more serious crimes. It can include phone check-ins, case management meetings, substance abuse testing as ordered, electronic monitoring via a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet and house arrest.

However, regardless of the person’s risk score, if they are charged with a serious person felony — such as first-degree murder — they would be recommended for the highest level of supervision, which includes house arrest with electronic monitoring and home confinement, cash or surety bond and substance abuse testing as ordered.

If a judge does consider pretrial release in such a case, bonds may be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For instance, Carrody Buchhorn, a Eudora woman charged with first-degree murder in 2017 and later convicted of second-degree murder in the death of an infant, was given house arrest with electronic monitoring when she posted $100,000 bond. She had no prior criminal record in Douglas County, the Journal-World has reported. The judge initially set bond at $250,000, then lowered the amount.

Pretrial release statistics

According to Weigand’s report, judges accept pretrial release recommendations at defendants’ first appearances about half the time.

In the span of a year, judges denied 184 pretrial release recommendations at first appearances. About two-thirds of those, or 67.6 percent, were either person felonies or person misdemeanors. Of those denials, 137 — 74 percent — had a second review at a later hearing, resulting in bond or pretrial release, according to further data Weigand provided to the Journal-World.

The number of recommendations accepted at first appearances could change, however.

Shaye Downing, the criminal defense attorney from the Douglas County Bar who serves on the CJCC, said during the council’s meeting that “generally speaking, the judge would accept (prosecutors’) objections” to pretrial release recommendations. Weigand said she’d been in touch with the DA’s office, and she thinks further explaining to that staff what the reports are supposed to predict could make them more comfortable.

In all of 2018, there were 383 total adults on pretrial release, including 81 who had carried over from 2017, according to Weigand’s report; the average daily population was 92.2, and the average length of supervision was 87.8 days.

According to the Sheriff’s Office report, from its beginnings as a pilot program in November 2015, pretrial release has served a total of 627 clients, doubling from nine to 18 from 2015 to 2016, then increasing to 195 in 2017, 326 in 2018 and 64 so far in 2019. By those numbers, pretrial release grew 67.2 percent from 2017 to 2018.

House arrest and monitoring

The house arrest option grew significantly after the Douglas County Commission approved it as a postconviction alternative to incarceration in May 2017. It’s also an option as part of pretrial release.

Previously, house arrest monitoring devices were only available to those who could pay a bail bondsman a fee of $200, the Journal-World has reported.

In 2018, 204 unique adult clients spent a combined 12,102 days on house arrest, according to Weigand’s report. The average daily population for the program was 33, with an average length of supervision of 59.32 days.

The electronic monitoring technology is fairly sophisticated, Weigand said. The ankle monitors have rechargeable batteries that swap out so that no one has to be “tethered to the wall” to charge, she said. If alcohol is a concern, some of the ankle monitors can detect alcohol through the skin; sweat patches are also available for drug detection. Also, CJS has portable breathalyzers that notify users when they need to test to prove they’re not drinking. Those devices snap a photo as users blow.

It’s all monitored by BI Inc., out of Boulder, Colo., but local officers get notified if anything goes awry. That can be something as simple as a low battery to two individuals who are on electronic monitoring being in the same location when they shouldn’t be, or it could even trigger a wellness check if, for instance, someone accused of domestic violence returns to a victim’s residence.

When people are serving out sentences on house arrest after they’ve been convicted rather than doing the time in jail, the electronic monitors track the time that users are actually at home, Weigand said. So for those who are allowed to go to work on house arrest, the time served only counts when the GPS shows they’re at home.

Behavioral health court

The county’s behavioral health court, which aims to help those with serious mental illness, still has such small numbers that its statistics are a bit skewed, Weigand explained to the CJCC. But in 2018, it served 33 clients, which included 11 who carried over from 2017.

“Not everybody who has a mental illness goes into this program — just the individuals who have an extreme difficulty staying on track,” Bunting told the Journal-World last month. “So what that looks like is a person regularly interacts with the judge, the judge sees how they’re doing, gives them positive or negative feedback.”

Weigand said that typically, those clients are referred to the district attorney’s office by their attorneys or by jail staff.

“We were hoping at some point the numbers would get up to around 30, but I think it’s a fairly high-needs population of people, so having the growth go slower over time I think works out really well,” Weigand said.

Of 14 closed BHC cases, five participants successfully graduated, according to Weigand’s report. Another two opted out, one transferred to a nursing residential facility and one returned to the criminal docket. She said the remaining five were terminated from the program for various case-by-case reasons. That doesn’t mean they would never be able to return to the program in the future, though.

“I think it’s really helpful to have those supports, and I think once we have that behavioral health campus, that will change some of this too, because we’ll have a lot more supports available to the clients that we serve in that program,” she continued, referring to the county’s plans to put a crisis center and transitional housing in a campus near Second and Maine streets.

Costs of programming

Weigand’s report offers a cost comparison. It shows the costs of staffing and operations for pretrial release, house arrest and behavioral health court for 2018 — $459,446.

On the other side is the cost of staffing and operations calculated by the number of days that each would-be inmate was involved in one of the programs, and what the cost would have been had they been lodged in the jail — $4,528,478, or almost 10 times (9.86) as much.

Weigand said she doesn’t think the cost factors into judges’ decisions on whether to consider one of the CJS alternatives.

“When they consider whether to use electronic monitoring or use pretrial services, first and foremost, they want to make sure that the community is safe and that they’re not putting anybody out there that could potentially do something serious,” she said. “… I don’t think the cost comes into it — I think they want to do what’s best for that person, but also what’s best for society.”

Overall, Weigand said, she thinks the programs are headed in the right direction to help those involved in the court system.

“We just want them to be successful in the community, and hopefully productive and successful,” she said. “That’s the goal — and in the least restrictive environment they can with as many supports as we can offer. Some people just need more support than others.”

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