Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council hopes that additional data, mapping will help see roots of racial, ethnic disparities

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Members of the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council are pictured during a virtual meeting on Oct. 14, 2020.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council focused most of its meeting Wednesday on discussing the next steps to address disparities that have led to Douglas County’s incarceration rate for Black people being nearly five times that of white people.

Looking forward, the council hopes to see data on criminal history, as well as mapping of arrests. In addition, members want to get more perspectives from members of the public who have been involved in the local criminal justice system.

Lawrence Mayor Jennifer Ananda, who leads the council’s work group on racial and ethnic disparities, sought further direction to determine where the group’s focus should be and what the CJCC’s goals are — to take a micro-level approach focusing on individuals, or to look at the macro level of policies, procedures, statutes and ordinances that she said are disproportionately impacting the community. She said she thinks both are essential, but without some direction from the rest of the CJCC, the work group is spinning its wheels.

Data Analyst Matt Cravens said some of the data he has been looking at includes offenses for which different racial groups are booked into the jail, bond amounts set for defendants, the likelihood of felonies being amended down to misdemeanors and infractions and the lengths of sentences. He said he has seen some differences between racial and ethnic groups in those categories, but nothing that really explained disparities including the incarceration rate for Black people being about 4.7 times the white rate.

Those rates came from his presentation to the CJCC back in June, which also showed that for Native American residents, the incarceration rate was the same as for white residents, and for Hispanic residents, it was about 1.3 times the white rate, according to the presentation. In addition, Cravens’ earlier report showed that white inmates spent an average of 16 days in jail in 2019, but Black inmates spent an average of 27 days, and Native American inmates an average of 19 days.

Cravens said he is unable to control for defendants’ criminal histories in his data analysis, though he has been able to factor in numbers of previous bookings into the Douglas County Jail.

Under Kansas law, defendants’ criminal histories are scored prior to their sentencing hearings, from a range of no criminal history or one misdemeanor conviction to three or more person felonies. That information is determined through a “presentence investigation.” But that data is not available for those inmates in the jail who have not had those investigations completed, and it has posed problems as Cravens has tried to analyze where the disparities occur.

Pam Weigand, the county’s director of criminal justice services, suggested looking at those who have been sentenced since their criminal history data was available. Cravens said that could be “very fruitful,” especially in looking at disparities in sentences, but it would not necessarily help with the disproportionalities in jail bookings and other earlier stages in the process.

Ananda said that when the CJCC is looking at data on who’s committing crimes, the council needs to consider that it shows who’s being caught committing crimes.

“I think the data has shown that the same percentage of crimes are committed, if not more, by the white population, and yet we see a disproportionate amount of our Black population experiencing arrest,” she said.

She said criminal history was out of the CJCC’s control, but the council had to consider how to address the impact criminal history has “when we know that some folks are targeted more than others.”

Cravens said the county’s Geographic Information Systems team is helping to map arrests in Douglas County in order to determine where disparities might be occurring at that stage. He said he hoped that data would help shed some light on racial disparities within the next month or so.

Ananda said the work group has been looking at various “decision points” throughout the criminal justice system, starting with interactions with law enforcement and following cases to their resolution.

Darren Canady, a community representative on the CJCC, said he would like Cravens to gather perspectives from defendants in the criminal justice system from the various decision points as their cases progress.

Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria agreed, and he said the community’s perspective could help the council determine what additional questions the CJCC could help answer.

The CJCC’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 10. A full recording of Wednesday’s meeting is available on the county’s YouTube page.

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