Is the Douglas County Jail’s inmate population decrease amid COVID-19 sustainable? Law enforcement isn’t optimistic
photo by: Chad Lawhorn
The population of the Douglas County Jail has dropped significantly since the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic and local and state officials began taking action to stop the spread.
The numbers have prompted local opponents of the planned expansion of the jail to amplify their call for criminal justice reform. However, local law enforcement officials do not think the lower numbers will last once stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“I think we’re living in an abnormal time; we should expect to see some abnormal numbers,” said Patrick Compton, spokesman for the Lawrence Police Department.
In order to understand what’s going on with the jail population numbers amid COVID-19, the Journal-World has been reviewing data on inmates in custody and inmates who have been released from custody since approximately the week of March 9, when the virus was declared a worldwide pandemic.
For context, on March 12, the chief judge of the Douglas County District Court issued an administrative order authorizing the sheriff to release some inmates who were symptomatic or at increased risk for COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days. An order from the Kansas Supreme Court the following week halted in-person court proceedings indefinitely.
Around the same time, the average number of individuals booked into the jail each day began to fall. By March 24, Douglas County was under a stay-at-home order. The governor’s statewide order superseded it on March 30, and by April 4, the rolling average of new bookings at the jail had dropped to a low on the year.
A review of eight dates
The newspaper reviewed data from various points in time since the beginning of the year: Jan. 10, Feb. 13, March 2, March 16, April 17, April 22, May 1 and May 8. Those point-in-time glances change multiple times a day as people are booked and released, and they are generally updated 24/7 on the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s website. The data gathered depicts the population of the jail at one second of each day, whether the inmates stay five minutes or five years.
In total, 377 individuals were in custody during at least one point-in-time glance; 158 of them, or roughly 42%, were only in custody for one of the dates. Seventy-four were in the jail consistently on all eight dates.
Seven were in custody nonconsecutively on some of the eight dates, meaning they were released from jail and later rebooked for alleged new offenses, probation violations or failures to appear in court.
First, it appears that one of the biggest contributing factors in the jail’s population drop is simply fewer people getting arrested.
Online jail records Friday morning showed 133 inmates in custody. That’s 74 fewer than just four months ago on Jan. 10 — a decrease of 35.75%.
The average number of individuals booked into the Douglas County Jail each day has dropped since the stay-at-home orders went into effect. Through January and February, the averages were 10.8 and 11.7 individuals booked per day. That dropped to 7.8 in March, and again to 4.7 in April. The average for May, through Friday, was 4.3.
Based on the Journal-World’s review of eight dates, recent bookings can make up a good deal of the jail’s population: 68 people were in custody on Jan. 10 but had been released before Feb. 13. They made up 32.9% of the inmate population on Jan. 10. However, 26 people were in custody on Feb. 13 but had been released before March 2; they made up just 13.4% of the jail’s population on Feb. 13, though that was a month before the global pandemic was declared.
But the number continued to trend downward to 19 people on March 16, 10.9% of the jail’s population, and as low as three on April 17, or 2.3%.
“It’s no secret that arrests are down nationally across the board, and Lawrence is no exception, and we think that that’s largely due to the stay-at-home order,” Compton said. “It honestly creates less opportunity for crimes to occur.”
In addition, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is not actively serving warrants for individuals who are not a risk to public safety at this time, Deputy Charlie Cooper, public information officer, said via email Friday.
“We are still gathering information on these cases that allow them to be served at a later date when there is no public health crisis,” she said.
However, both spokespeople said their agencies are not changing the way they determine whether to make an arrest or taking space at the jail into consideration based on the virus.
“Any arrest that we make, we are weighing that arrest in the interest of public safety and nothing else,” Compton said.
Cooper said it is premature to speculate on rates of crime and traffic crashes in the middle of the pandemic, and that such data is not available to the sheriff’s office in the short term. However, Compton said LPD has seen a drop in alcohol-related crime, meaning fights and DUIs, which he attributes largely to patrons being unable to consume alcohol on serving establishments’ premises. He also said that traffic accidents are down.
Who’s stayed in the jail?
Some of the jail’s longest-booked inmates have become a majority. According to the data, 74 inmates were booked at some time prior to Jan. 10 and remained in custody through Friday. They made up 35.7% of the 207 inmates in custody on Jan. 10, but they were 56.1% of the 132-inmate population on April 17.
The average length of stay for these 74 inmates, as of Friday, was 303.6 days, and the median was 222 days. The average length of stay for the entire jail population in 2019 was 18.06 days, according to numbers that Cooper provided to the Journal-World on Friday.
Demographically, 53 of the 74 inmates are white, 19 are black, one is Asian and one is American Indian. The online jail data does not list further information on inmates’ race and ethnicity. Seven of the inmates are female and 67 are male. Their average and median age was 38 as of Friday, with a range of 18 to 62 years old.
Here’s some more information about these 74 inmates and their charges. One note: The statistics below won’t add up to exact totals because of the many outliers, individual circumstances and unavailability of some data. Rather, they are compiled to give a clearer picture of these groups.
• Of these 74 inmates, the Journal-World has reported on at least 30 in recent years, and most of them are charged with crimes such as murder; attempted murder; rape; sex crimes or child sex crimes; and/or crimes against law enforcement.
• Of the 34 inmates on whose cases the Journal-World has not reported, 10 are charged with primary offenses that are drug-related — seven with distribution and three with possession. Of the three drug possession-related cases, two of the inmates have been ordered to treatment at a mental health facility.
• Eight of the inmates are facing domestic violence-related charges. Another 10 are charged with property crimes, such as burglary, theft and criminal damage to property.
• At least nine of the 74 inmates have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing; several have already had sentencing dates pass while the courts have been shut down.
• 13 are serving sentences of county time.
• 10 have been ordered to treatment or a competency evaluation at a mental health facility.
• 12 have warrants from other jurisdictions or holds from the Kansas Department of Corrections.
• Fifteen of the 74 have spent a year or more in custody. If none of them is released in the meantime, that number will increase to 18 by next Sunday, May 17, and to 20 by the following Sunday.
Who’s been released?
Nationwide, advocates have called for jails and prisons to release any inmates who aren’t a risk to public safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Those spaces don’t generally allow for proper social distancing, and such a contagious virus could easily spread through the population quickly. Widespread testing during the outbreak at Lansing Correctional Facility, for instance, has revealed that 690 inmates and 88 staff members were positive for COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon.
As part of its review, the Journal-World examined cases of 39 inmates who were in custody on both March 2 and March 16 but had been released prior to April 17.
Being held in custody for at least 14 days, between March 2 and March 16, indicates generally that the inmates were not booked on quick-turnaround charges, such as a DUI arrest. Further review showed that they had spent an average of 110 days and a median of 32 days in custody prior to March 2.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said via email Friday that his staff had worked with defense counsel on bond modifications for 18 defendants to be released from the jail, plus one furlough. A majority of them, 13, had been released as of April 3. Though his office can recommend defendants for release on bond and defense attorneys can request it on their clients’ behalf, only judges can order a release from jail.
Demographically, 32 of these 39 defendants are white, six are black and one is American Indian. Eleven are female and 28 are male. Their average and median age was 36 as of Friday, with a range of 19 to 59 years old.
Conditions of release
• Five of the inmates were released to KDOC to serve sentences. Two more were released to treatment facilities.
• Four were released after other jurisdictions withdrew warrants for their arrests; one of them received a bond modification from $5,000 cash or surety to $5,000 own recognizance.
• 13 had been sentenced to time in the county jail. Of those inmates, 10 were released after serving their time, including three whose sentences were modified; the other three were released to parole or probation.
• 13 were released after a judge ordered their bond modified from cash or surety amounts to own recognizance; various conditions apply in those releases, including house arrest, orders not to use drugs or alcohol and no-contact orders, for instance.
• Only five of these inmates’ cases had been reported in the Journal-World; of that group, two were released to KDOC to serve time, one was released after completing a jail sentence and two were released to house arrest on $50,000 own-recognizance bonds.
• Five of these inmates were in custody for allegedly failing to appear in court or violating probation in a drug possession case.
• 12 were in custody on domestic violence-related charges; six were in custody in connection with municipal charges, primarily traffic cases; and five were in custody for alleged property crimes.
• One was being held on $100,000 cash or surety bond on charges of rape and aggravated criminal sodomy, both off-grid felonies, meaning that if convicted, the defendant could face a life sentence. He was granted a $50,000 own-recognizance bond and released to house arrest with GPS monitoring, according to an agreement between the prosecutor and defense counsel in the court case file. The judge sealed the police affidavit supporting that defendant’s arrest, so the Journal-World does not have details of the allegations against him.
Can it last?
Compton said it was hard to try to speculate or forecast what the levels of crime will be moving forward because these are unprecedented times.
However, “As the governor starts to walk back that executive order, those numbers will undoubtedly return to a level that’s more indicative of our population,” Compton said of the lower number of arrests.
Cooper pointed to the court system nationwide being shut down, for the most part, since mid-March.
“This continues to have a substantial impact on the correctional facility population,” she said. “When the court system re-opens, along with businesses and public spaces, this population will be affected.”
DA Branson responded to questions from the Journal-World via email on Friday. He attributed the jail’s population drop to two main factors.
Branson said the county’s implementation of pretrial release bond supervision programming two years ago has made a significant difference in the number of people held on bond. He said as of last week, 143 people were on release through the programs, and that the services have become more robust, removing cash bond as a barrier for most offenders.
He also noted that bookings had started trending down last year; then, when COVID-19 hit, “we saw another significant dip in bookings.”
“I think the benefits of the pre-trial release bond supervision program are sustainable,” Branson said. “I suspect that as society returns to normal we will see an increase in bookings.”
Douglas County commissioners on Jan. 29 voted to approve a nearly $30 million plan to expand the 186-bed jail by between 84 and 112 new beds. The governing body has long cited overcrowding and the dangers it can present to inmates and jail staff: the average daily population of the jail was 235 in 2018 and 219 in 2019, according to numbers Cooper provided Friday.
Advocates with the local grassroots organization Justice Matters have long opposed the project, but the large drop since COVID-19 hit — bringing the numbers well below 186 — has made the group “more determined than ever to see data-driven criminal justice reforms and alternatives to incarceration fully implemented before building more jail cells,” Brent Hoffman, the group’s co-president, said in a statement to the Journal-World on Saturday.
“… Policies implemented during COVID-19 like the expanded use of diversion, fast-tracked hearings, and bail reviews are all things that other communities (like the college town of Iowa City) have used before the pandemic to reduce the number of people in jail without sacrificing public safety,” Hoffman said later in the statement.
Hoffman said that if Douglas County can use criminal justice reforms and expanded alternatives to incarceration to eliminate overcrowding within two months, it stands to reason that the county should redouble efforts after the pandemic to provide better community supports and criminal justice reforms.
He also said the use of cash bail to determine who should be in jail guarantees freedom only to those who can afford it.
“The fact that local officials cite bail reviews and pre-trial release to explain the reduction in our jail population indicates that before the pandemic we were locking up people because they were too poor to make bail,” Hoffman said.
Branson did not immediately respond to a follow-up question sent via email Friday asking whether the 18 defendants who have had their bonds modified so they could be released from jail amid the virus needed to be in custody in the first place, and whether there is a way to perpetuate the same efforts after the virus is no longer a concern.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
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