Criminal cases filed in Douglas County court down almost 50% in 15 years; here’s why

photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World Graphic

Misdemeanor and felony criminal cases filed in Douglas County District Court, fiscal years 2005 - 2019. Data source: Kansas Office of Judicial Administration

The total number of criminal cases filed in Douglas County District Court has dropped by almost 50% in the last 15 years, data from the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration shows.

However, many of those cases are still being filed — but in municipal courts rather than the district court. And it’s misdemeanor cases, not felonies, that are behind the decrease; the number of felony cases in Douglas County actually reached a new high in 2019.

In the available data, which covers fiscal years 1995 through 2019, the total number of felony and misdemeanor criminal cases filed peaked in fiscal year 2006 at 2,184. But since fiscal year 2012, Douglas County District Court hasn’t seen more than 1,225 cases in a single year.

The most recent set of data covers fiscal year 2019, or July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019. The total number of criminal cases in FY 2019 was 1,135.

Misdemeanor cases filed in Douglas County District Court hit a new low at 470 in FY 2019, according to the OJA data. That’s about half the 15-year average of 912, and it’s lower than the median for fiscal years 2005 through 2019, which was 721.

Meanwhile, the number of felony cases filed has slowly crept up to a new high at 665. In the 15-year time frame from FY 2005 through FY 2019, the lowest number of felony cases filed was 500 in FY 2014. The average was about 570, and the median was about 560.

Longtime Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson, who took office in January 2005, explained some of the reasons behind the biggest shifts in the numbers. He said two changes to how certain offenses are charged contributed significantly to the drop in misdemeanor cases.

First, the data shows that misdemeanor cases filed dropped off significantly after FY 2006. Total misdemeanors filed dropped by almost 300 cases from FY 2006 to FY 2007, then by another 300 from FY 2007 to FY 2008, the data shows.

Branson explained that the drop was because of a change in the way marijuana possession cases were charged. In February 2006, the Lawrence City Commission passed an ordinance that would allow marijuana cases to be filed in Lawrence Municipal Court rather than Douglas County District Court, the Journal-World reported.

Branson said he and others pushed for the city to make that happen. Marijuana cases charged in Douglas County District Court could jeopardize a university student’s financial aid status; municipal court cases, however, would not.

At the time, first-time offenders faced a $200 fine in municipal court, plus a $100 fee for a drug evaluation. In March 2019, the City Commission lowered the fine to $1 for possession of up to 32 grams of marijuana, which is a little more than 1 ounce. Other fines and costs, such as a minimum $200 fine for paraphernalia, up to $150 for a drug evaluation and $63 in court costs, may still apply in some cases.

And in October 2019, Branson announced that his office would no longer charge simple marijuana possession cases — “I do not feel it is fair or just for Douglas County to criminally charge citizens with something they can do with virtually no penalty in the City of Lawrence and other surrounding communities,” he said in a news release at the time.

A second change of procedures in 2011 created another large drop in the number of misdemeanors filed. The chief judge at the time made an administrative change to how cases of driving under the influence would be handled. Instead of being filed as criminal cases as they had historically, they would be charged as traffic cases, Branson said. Those cases were “artificially inflating” the numbers of criminal cases filed each year, he said.

With that change, the total misdemeanor criminal cases filed dropped by about 400 from FY 2010 to FY 2011, then by about another 400 from FY 2011 to FY 2012. The five-year average number of misdemeanor cases filed in district court from FY 2015 to FY 2019 is 550.

In addition, data from the OJA shows that the number of misdemeanor traffic cases nearly doubled from FY 2011 to FY 2012 — a leap from 1,055 to 1,954. The data that’s available, from FY 2006 to FY 2019, also shows that the first felony traffic cases were charged in FY 2011.

“We’ve always been pretty selective about screening our cases; we send cases to municipal court,” Branson said. But he said that as felony cases rose, his office had to become even more selective about which cases to handle itself and which cases to send elsewhere.

“When I first started, we just filed everything that, if law enforcement sent it to us and we found probable cause, we’d file it,” he said. “But once we started seeing an increase in our felony caseload and our felony cases started becoming more complicated, we started looking at our misdemeanor cases a little more closely.”

He said his office realized that law enforcement would often send misdemeanor cases to the DA’s office by default. Today, however, many of those go to municipal courts in Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin City, he said.

In addition, for the past several years, Branson said his office has looked to reduce the number of people coming into the criminal justice system and to have a more meaningful impact on people’s lives.

“Felony cases, serious cases, they need to be filed, of course,” Branson said. “But even then, we’re still trying to look at ways to find alternatives for folks, whether it be behavioral health court, whether it’s a diversion program, drug court, any of the various diversion programs that we have — all those things come into play when we try to find a good resolution for a case.”

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — Kansas recorded its first known cases in March 2020 — Branson’s office has filed a lot fewer cases than in previous years. He said he thinks the filings for 2020 will probably be the lowest the county DA’s office has had in 30 years.

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