There are goals nearly every Douglas County resident agrees on: Reduce the number of crime victims and keep our communities safe; Ensure every person is treated fairly and is not harmed by our government; Heal people who are sick and not criminalize them; Invest our limited public resources on projects that will address our biggest needs.
At times, it can feel like those goals are in tension with each other and that we need to sacrifice one to protect another. We may want to invest in community mental health services to address one of our community’s biggest needs, but it feels like we’ll have to spend a lot more money on jail cells to address overcrowding. Or we may want to reduce the harm we cause when we lock someone in our jail for a few days and they lose their job, but it feels like a high rate of incarceration is a necessary evil to keep our communities safe.
As this report shows, these are false choices. There are proven approaches, already adopted in many communities across the country, that both reduce incarceration and improve public safety at the same time. These programs are designed to address the underlying reasons that cause crime and “restore” community after a crime and, rather than perpetuate cycles of criminal behavior through punitive practice. They are based on rigorous research and data that shows jailing people who are not a threat to public safety – the majority of people currently incarcerated in the Douglas County jail – is an expensive waste of time that may actually be making our community less safe. And as several Bishops and religious leaders write in the faith statement included in our report, choosing restoration over incarceration is not traditional public policy. But it is the moral path we ought to pursue.
How does jailing someone for a few days make our community less safe? According to the True Cost of Incarceration executive summary included here, during the few days a person sits in jail, they can lose important pro-social connections: They may lose their job, they may miss important medical appointments, or they may miss out on a child’s birthday or a loved one’s funeral. Taken together, those experiences increase the chances that person will commit another crime in the future. Research shows jailing low-risk defendants increases their odds of re-offending by more than 50 percent.
You will find several other relevant articles in this report, but you will not find a recommendation to expand our jail. Instead, we call for a full commitment to restorative alternatives as the first and foremost response to the recent spike in jail population. In our review of research, we were unable to find any studies that showed positive effects on community safety from a jail expansion. In fact, we found the opposite: a study from the Brennan Center for Justice showed increased incarceration in the United States has done essentially nothing to reduce crime, and “programs that improve economic opportunities, modernize policing practices, and expand treatment and rehabilitation programs, all could be a better public safety investment.”
We do not shy away from discussing perhaps the most troubling concern we found in our research: the people found in our jails. The Douglas County jail has increasingly incarcerated women, people of color, and people with mental illness at high levels.
Recognizing the societal failures that have led to these tragedies should make us all pause when thinking about a bigger jail and, instead maximize supportive alternatives. Specific items in our report discuss these populations and provide a look into their historical significance.
The good news is crime is falling in Douglas County. Violent crime as reported by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has fallen nearly 50 percent in the past decade, and property crimes have fallen by approximately a third. The bad news is incarceration in Douglas County has risen precipitously. When the county commission announced plans in 2014 to expand the jail, the average daily population at the jail was 171 people, lower than the jail’s capacity. But this year, the daily population at the jail has ranged from 230 people to as high as 268 people, an increase of 35 to 58 percent since 2014.
This raises two important questions: 1) Why is crime falling? and 2) Why is incarceration rising?
As a community, we need to find the answers to these questions because they will guide us to the best path forward. The proposed $30 million jail expansion would reduce overcrowding at the jail in the short term, but it would do nothing to answer either of these questions, and it would divert tens of millions of dollars away from the services that could reduce crime in our community.
By contrast, if we investigate the reasons why crime has fallen in Douglas County over the past decade, we could put more public investment in those services in order to ensure fewer and fewer of our neighbors become victims of crimes. If we understood the reasons why incarceration is rising so quickly in our county, we could pinpoint needed reforms to our criminal justice system so fewer and fewer of our neighbors are harmed by unnecessary incarceration.
This path is not outside the control of our County Commission and local authorities. In a piece from Kaitlyn Kall at the Vera Institute, we learn the ways other local counties have successfully reduced incarceration by adopting improvements in the policies, procedures, and practices used by law enforcement, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, etc.
This is the choice Douglas County faces. Do we expand our jail? Or do fully explore and support restorative programs that have been shown to reduce both crime and incarceration?
This is an incredibly important decision, and we should not rush it. Even in the face of expenses to farm inmates out to other counties, we must take the long-view and invest our limited resources wisely or we may wind up continuing the bewildering contradiction of growing incarceration in the midst of falling crime. We need to start at the beginning, come together as a community to commit to restorative practices, seek help and guidance from those with experience in these matters, and then gather the data and research we need to pick the most effective strategies to reach those goals.
In the face of pressures to build a bigger jail and couple mental health services with it, Justice Matters hopes this report sparks a deep and sustained conversation about alternatives to incarceration. We have provided six specific ways our next County Commission can lead us in this direction. This is not the first time we have raised them, but with a fuller study we hope they will no longer go ignored.