Kan. county addresses overcrowding with cross-departmental collaboration

Since leaders from several departments began meeting weekly the jail population has shrunk

Jason Beets
The Salina Journal, Kan.

About seven years ago, the Wyandotte Criminal Justice Collaborative Committee was grappling with jail overcrowding and Brenda Leiker had an answer — collaboration.

"We were acting in silos," said Leiker, now case expeditor administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. "Let's kick the silos down because what affects one part of the system will affect all parts of the system. No one understood that."

Weekly meetings between leaders from several departments expanded to include more people. Leiker currently updates the Criminal Justice Collaborative Committee, led by Wyandotte Sheriff Don Ash, four times a year.

And the jail population has shrunk.

The total number of Wyandotte County inmates dropped from 7,123 in 2014 to 4,892 in 2017, according to information from the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office.

Leiker encourages other counties to increase collaboration among criminal justice officials. In March, she briefed members of the Saline County Jail Population Reduction Committee on her methods. She recommends Saline County prioritize public safety, talk about what each official and department does and determine goals for the criminal justice system.

Leiker's is one of many approaches being considered by the Saline County committee, formed about two years ago to investigate ways to reduce the steadily increasing number of Saline County inmates. Since the fall of 2011, Saline County has been paying to house inmates in other counties, sometimes as far away as Dickinson, McPherson, Butler and Ford counties. In 2017, Saline County paid $1.15 million for these contract housing services as its average daily inmate population reached 278, greatly surpassing the capacity of the county's 192-bed jail.

Community Corrections Director Annie Grevas, chairwoman of the Jail Population Reduction Committee, said other options include improving inmate intake and assessment, developing a pretrial assessment and increasing the size of the jail.

Grevas said the committee initially made slow progress but lately has been moving more quickly.

"It has taken a little longer than I anticipated," she said. "No one told me this would be an easy or quick process. As chair, I felt stalemated at times. We spent a lot of time talking to different consultants, looking at different assessments. It took time for people who have full-time jobs."

Assessing risks

Volunteers and county employees have been assessing Saline County inmates to better understand why they ended up in jail and to inform officials as they consider alternative approaches to incarceration.

For several months, jail personnel have conducted a formal mental health screening on every inmate booked into jail. Saline County Sheriff Roger Soldan said jail staff previously used a different mental health screening.

Grevas said officials will use the results of the screening to create services for inmates that would reduce the likelihood that they would commit another crime.

In April, following an increase in the number of women being arrested, county employees and volunteers began conducting a Gender Informed Needs Assessment on female inmates. The GINA assessment materials, training and technical assistance cost $6,000, Grevas said. During the assessment, women are asked about past trauma, whether they have children and their life experiences. These results will also be used to help create services to try to reduce recidivism.

If the committee succeeds in reducing the number of repeat offenders in Saline County, Grevas said public safety would improve.

The data from the GINA and the formal mental health screening also will help the county create a pre-trial assessment to determine whether a defendant is likely to return to court if he or she is released from jail, Grevas said.

The pre-trial assessment will also attempt to determine if the defendant would pose a risk to the community if released, Grevas said. A judge would then consider the assessment's result when deciding what conditions a defendant will face while he or she awaits trial.

Soldan said the average time inmates who don't bond out the day they're arrested spend in the Saline County Jail has increased from eight days in the 1980s to more than 30 days.

Grevas said some people have trouble posting bond, which means they must stay in jail as their cases proceed through court.

"Some clients that go into jail have friends that will bond them out," she said. "Some clients have family that will bond them out, and others have nobody."

Consultant hired

The Saline County Commission hired Jim Robertson of Voorhis-Robertson Justice Services in January, at a cost of $64,700, to study jail overcrowding. Robertson is comparing current and past intake numbers, lengths of stay, changes in the jail population, trends and data from the assessments, Grevas said.

Robertson also was hired in 2011 to study jail overcrowding. Following completion of that study, commissioners asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund a $46.5 million jail, justice center and parking garage. Voters rejected the measure.

Grevas isn't worried that Robertson will again recommend building a new jail. She said Robertson told her, "You can't build your way out of this."

During a recent county commission meeting, Commissioner Robert Vidricksen said Robertson is doing quality work.

"I've got a great deal of confidence and respect for this Jim Robertson that is doing this study. The information he is bringing forth is quite frankly opening all of our eyes," he said. "That is really going to be money well spent in the long run."

Recidivism high

Soldan said a large number of people incarcerated at the Saline County Jail are repeat offenders.

Grevas hopes the county can make changes to help inmates to put their lives back on track.

"One of the things we know is the criminal justice system as designed today, I'm not talking about Saline County, I'm talking nationwide, does not allow a majority of clients to get themselves out."

But Undersheriff Brent Melander said some inmates won't improve their lives no matter what opportunities are offered.

"There are some people that don't care," he said.

Melander isn't pessimistic about the prospects for all inmates, however. He said some inmates are granted work release, which allows them to leave the jail daily to work and raise money to pay fines and support their families. He said he would like to see more inmates take part in the work release program.

Grevas, who has been a community corrections director for 33 years, said she has seen many former inmates succeed following their release. She hopes the jail reduction committee can recommend new policies that will allow even more inmates to succeed.


©2018 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.)


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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