More than just the center of Kansas Jayhawk Country, Douglas County – county seat Lawrence – is among the state's most liberal counties. In a sea of red Kansas counties, Douglas County is consistently blue, and its recent politics reflects it.
After years of overcrowding in the Douglas County jail and approval of a $30 million bond issue to fund the jail's expansion, in November, Douglas County voters elected a slate of new candidates who ran on a platform opposing the jail expansion. This included two county commissioners, Shannon Reid and Shannon Portillo; a sheriff, Jay Armbrister; and a district attorney, Suzanne Valdez.
This fall, in an unassuming Zoom meeting, Douglas County's commission rescinded the expansion plan county officials had pushed for five years. Now, instead of plans to expand its jail, Douglas County finds itself in a unique position for a Kansas county. Instead of the more prevalent build-it-and-fill-it approach to criminal justice, Douglas County is now weighing ways to decrease its jail population.
Approaches being considered include decriminalizing some offenses, expanding available alternatives to jail and addressing racism within its criminal justice system. While expansion is off the table, another proposal would reconfigure the existing jail to slightly increase its capacity.
After years of overcrowding, the jail's average daily population peaked in 2017 before decreasing slightly in both 2018 and in 2019, when the daily average settled in at 219 in a 186-bed facility. Since the pandemic hit in March, a slowdown in arrests has driven the jail population down even further. Since spring, the jail occupancy has rarely risen above 140.
Despite a low current jail population, Douglas County criminal justice officials say the incoming officeholders have decisions and policy changes to make ahead of a spike that may logically occur once the courts reopen and if bookings increase.
"We want to continue to stress … that doomsday is coming," says Mike Brouwer, the county's criminal justice coordinator. "I wish I could tell you we have found the magic answer to our problems. I (am) afraid the continued reduction of the jail population is more about luck than our efforts at this point."
While many Kansas counties, including Sedgwick County, deal with the challenges of having enough space to house their jail populations and the quandaries of mental health and addiction, with expansion off the table, those concerns are coming to a head in Douglas County.
Here are the three questions officials will likely have to answer as they work to better the Douglas County criminal justice system.
Find Out What's Driving
Since 2015, the leading organization in the jail's opposition campaign, Justice Matters, has asked the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of officials and stakeholders, to undergo a study on drivers of the jail's population by the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit that studies the criminal justice system. To their frustration, the CJCC never picked it up. Justice Matters leaders say it should be the first thing new leaders undertake.
"The priority is to encourage the new DA and Sheriff, as well as the new County Commission, to work with Vera on an unbiased and comprehensive study of the Criminal Justice System and the use of the jail facility in Douglas County," wrote Brent Hoffman, co-president of Justice Matters, in an email.
While none of them noted it as their top priority, all four incoming officeholders said they support the study's undertaking. And both Armbrister and Valdez said they are dedicated to providing the data necessary for the study. Armbrister just wants to make it clear that Vera is "not unbiased. … There is no situation in which they would say … (we) need a larger jail."
But Brouwer says he feels he already has a pretty good handle on the drivers of the jail's pre-pandemic overburdened population: slow case processing, for which he knows the solutions.
What he isn't sure about is why the number of annual bookings at the Douglas County jail decreased in 2018 and again in 2019, when it hit its lowest since 2001.
"If I could have 2019's booking rate for the next 10 years, that would go a long way to solving our problem," Brouwer says. "And until we figure out why the booking numbers were so low in 2019, we can't replicate it."
Increase Capacity by
Reconfigure Existing Jail Space
When the county commission passed a nearly $30 million package to fund the jail expansion in January, they already had $9 million in their pocket dedicated to jail improvements.
With the jail expansion repealed, Armbrister hopes to use this money to retrofit the jail's minimum-security units and work-release unit into higher security units. Currently, about 70 beds in the jail are not behind a locking door.
"If we don't have persons who fit the criteria to be not behind a (locked) door, our jail is functionally full much, much lower," Armbrister says. Pre-pandemic, the jail was functionally full at around 150; implementing coronavirus precautions at the jail decreased this to around 130.
His plan would increase the jail's capacity without increasing the number of beds.
"Picture a large house and … you want to take the theater out and make another bedroom out of it," Armbrister says. This is what he would like to see done with the facility's 40-bed open-air work-release unit — "shelled" into individual units.
The county commission would need to approve this use of funds, and support on the commission appears strong initially.
"Shifting the low security to higher security makes sense, as we're hoping to see fewer folks who would qualify for low security or work release in the jail in the future," Portillo wrote in an emailed response.
The change would help the county take on more prisoners but it wouldn't solve the problem of more people coming into the system or for making the criminal justice system fairer. Incoming officials have different priorities when it comes to solutions to keep the jail population low. While some plan to expand and grow existing alternative to incarceration programs, others see a need to bring about more structural changes.
Valdez has plans to grow many of the systems already in place. This includes the drug court and behavioral health court, which serve as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders and those who suffer from serious mental illness. Between them, 28 people have graduated from the programs. By speeding up the process to admit defendants into these specialty courts, creating a set of clear guidelines for who qualifies and allowing people in "as a rule rather than exception," Valdez believes the courts can grow to their full potential.
Making the pretrial release and diversion programs more robust is Valdez's other priority. The pretrial release program attempts to reduce incarceration rates for those unable to pay bond by instead monitoring defendants as they await trial outside of the jail, while diversion is typically used to avoid convicting a person charged with a lower-level crime.
Expanding these programs is especially important for 18 to 24-year-olds, who are legally tried as adults but "are still very vulnerable to engaging in poor judgment," Valdez said. She wants to increase the likelihood that young adults, if they are brought to court, will be held accountable without necessarily being incarcerated — a similar philosophy with which juveniles are typically treated.
"That's a vulnerable age group, of especially young Black males, young marginalized members of our community. Those are the ones we worry about. And that makes sense to me, because I have kids that age," Valdez said. She'd like to see this population targeted for pretrial release, diversion opportunities or even restorative justice services.
Meanwhile, the two incoming county commissioners see a criminal justice system that requires large-scale change. Both Shannon Reid and Shannon Portillo listed bringing a public defender's office to Douglas County as a top priority. Reid included looking "at every available opportunity to stop requesting cash bail" as another, a sentiment Portillo echoed in the past. Doing so, Reid wrote in an emailed response, would allow "more folks (to) return to their lives after an arrest and maintain their stability, and their health, while their case proceeds through local courts."
Valdez believes further research and data analysis is required to decide "whether a public defender would be able to … make a difference or not" in Douglas County, and what policy will be used to request bail for violent offenses.
Kansas sheriffs across the state must deal with mental health issues as a factor in managing the capacities of their jails, B. Cole Presley of the Kansas Sheriff’s Association told The Journal this past fall. But most see jail expansion as a solution to be implemented side-by-side with substance abuse and mental health resources.
Sedgwick County, while a few steps behind Douglas County, is one of the other counties in Kansas working to prioritize substance abuse and mental health issues over jail expansion, according to Sheriff Jeff Easter.
In rejecting the jail expansion, Douglas County is charting a new path on criminal justice in the state: they have no choice but to reduce their incarcerated population. But just how far they’ll go is something the rest of the state could be watching and learning from.