Alternatives to Incarceration:

Jail Context & Research

Justice Matters believes the issue of jail expansion needs to be viewed within the context of the tragedy of mass incarceration in this country and how jails play in to this broader picture.  Currently we are holding approximately 731,000 individuals in 3000 jails across the country.  In the course of a year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions – equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined.  For every person behind bars there is a family and a community that is impacted. What is even more shocking is that 75% of those in our jails are booked for non-violent crimes i.e. traffic, property, drug or public order offenses.

Any analysis of jail and prison population quickly shows that minorities (people of color) and the poor are disproportionately represented in these statistics.  The Douglas County Correctional Facility (DCCF) is no exception in this regard.  Based on the most recent annual report, 21% of those booked into our jail were African American while the percent of African Americans living in Douglas County is 4.6.  Statistics for Hispanic percentages were not tracked but across the nation they, too, are disproportionately represented.  And of course, the mentally ill represent another important group who get caught in our current system.

There seems to be convincing evidence that our current jail may be the most progressive one in the state.  Collaboration with Bert Nash which provides onsite evaluation and treatment and the establishment of an innovative reentry program have not gone unnoticed on the state and national level.  Credit belongs to the sheriff and his staff for moving toward a more restorative approach.

While there are clear and rational reasons to make modifications to our jail for the safety of prisoners and jail staff, it is less clear that that the current plan which calls for adding 120 beds is necessary.  It is incumbent for our community to be absolutely convinced we need to add 120 beds to our facility before we spend 30 million dollars to build them.  Not to do the research before we break ground will give tacit approval to the expansion of the broken system of mass incarceration.  Throughout the country the pattern has been “if you build it, you will fill it.”  We have before us a rare opportunity to begin the process of local criminal justice system reform by exploring every possible way we might safely divert non violent offenders from jail and shorten the length of stay for those already incarcerated.  Money saved by reducing the numbers incarcerated could free up resources to build and bolster diversion options. 

Our research into alternatives to incarceration has revealed:

  • Incarceration for even short periods of time (more than one day) can be harmful – making jail a “gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system.”
  • Jail expansions result in growing numbers of people incarcerated. This is referred to the “if you build it, you will fill it” phenomenon.
  • The number of people booked at the jail and the time they stay there are determined largely among six decision-making points who act independently but together make-up a local criminal justice system:
    1. Police who decide to arrest, release, or book people into jail.
    2. Prosecutors who determine whether to charge or divert.
    3. Pretrial Program Services who make custody/release recommendations.
    4. Judges who decide to detain or release, set bail conditions, etc. and set the trial schedule.
    5. Attorneys who may delay or accelerate pending cases.
    6. Community Corrections who choose how and when to detain for violations of supervision in the community.
  • A number of jurisdictions from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to Pennington County, South Dakota have safely reduced their jail populations through collaboration among the various independent agencies that make decisions on when/how to use the jail. When taking the time to study all the players, these cities/regions have chosen to invest in alternatives that lower recidivism, allow people to retain employment, while improving public safety
  • Every community in America can safely reduce its use of incarceration while reserving valuable criminal justice resources for those who pose significant risks to public safety. Strategies to reduce local jail use include: 
  1. Policing practices that limit unnecessary custodial arrests;
  2. Early screening and assignment of counsel;
  3. Pretrial detention decision-making that focuses on assessments of safety and flight risk, not ability to pay;
  4. Diversion options that hold offenders accountable without separating them from their jobs and families;
  5. Booking, arraignment, case screening, and processing procedures that shorten jail stays by reducing procedural delays; and
  6. Reentry practices that better prepare inmates for release and reintegration and serve to reduce reoffending.

 An Opportunity: The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

The Douglas County Commission has acquired a grant to form of a group of community stakeholders known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. They are charged with the responsibility to identify and implement measures to reduce the number of people incarcerated.

 Members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council include:

  • Chief Judge Robert Fairchild
  • Sheriff Ken McGovern
  • District Attorney Charles Branson
  • County Commissioner Jim Flory
  • Shaye L. Downing, a member of the Douglas County defense bar
  • Lawrence Police Chief Tariq Khatib
  • Lawrence Municipal Judge Scott Miller
  • Lawrence City Commissioner Leslie Soden
  • DCCCA Director Lori Alvarado
  • Executive Director of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Dave Johnson
  • Susan Hadl, Justice Matters member/Bert Nash Screener at Lawrence Memorial Hospital (appointed by Commissioner Jim Flory)
  • Rev. Edith Guffey, Justice Matters member (appointed by Commissioner Mike Gaughan)
  • Bob Tryanski, mental health consumer and advocate (appointed by Commissioner Nancy Thellman)

 Non-voting Members will include:

  • County Administrator Craig Weinaug
  • Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus
  • Court services & Reentry Representatives

Justice Matters 2016 Nehemiah Assembly

At the 2016 Nehemiah Assembly, Justice Matters proposed to the Douglas County Administrator:

  • Hire an independent consulting firm with a track record of identifying and implementing safe/effective alternatives to incarceration to support the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee 
  • Postpone the vote on jail expansion, crisis center, and mental health court until after the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee completes their study of safe and effective alternatives (a delay until after the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council completed its study was announced that same day)
  • Add representatives to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that specialize in the issue of race to address the disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated at our jail (e.g., NAACP representative, etc.)

Racial Disparity at the Jail

In Douglas County, an African American resident is 5 to 10 times more likely than other county residents to be incarcerated at our jail (the national average is almost 4 times). To address the racial disparity, we have asked County Commissioners to add a voting member with expertise in this area to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (e.g., a member of the local chapter of the NAACP).

At the Nehemiah Assembly, the Douglas County Administrator said he will take our request back to the County Commissioners. 

Two weeks later, the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council agreed to add an additional seat to their membership with expertise on the intersection of race and incarceration. All three County Commissioners agreed with the recommendation of the Council.

 Consultants who Specialize in Alternatives to Incarceration

Justice Matters' is recommending that the County hire any of the three consultants that are being used by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety & Justice Challenge grant program. This program was designed because the primary purpose of jails is to detain those awaiting trial who are a danger to public safety or a flight risk. But they now hold many who are neither, at exorbitant fiscal and social costs. Learn more about the program: http://www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org/about-the-challenge/

The consultants the MacArthur Foundation have hired to assist local communities to identify and implement alternatives include:

  1. The Vera Institute of Justice
  2. Justice Systems Partners
  3. The Justice Management Institute

Commissioner Mike Gaughan touched on this proposal in a written statement to the Justice Matters' Co-Presidents:

"Furthermore, the CJCC's work to identify alternatives to incarceration cannot be accomplished by existing staff. It is important that every agency and department at the table have confidence that the Council's work isn't a project of any one department or agency, and is done in an independent manner. The community needs that same confidence. The County Commission has decided that anybody hired to support the Council's work will work for the Commission. We haven't decided whether that will be permanent staffing alone, or some combination of permanent staffing with additional support provided by an outside consultant, but in my view that hinges on what kind of experience the person or people we hire bring to the job. This work requires somebody dedicated to the time between the Council's meetings, and the commission is already committed to budgeting for that this year."

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will make recommendations for staff support to the Douglas County Commission. Any staff so approved shall be supervised by the County Administrator."

How Justice Matters got involved in Alternatives to Incarceration

On November 10, 2014 at the First Presbyterian Church, Justice Matters held its first Community Problems Assembly. The father of a young woman suffering with bi-polar disorder called on the organization to focus on mental health. He stood before 450 Justice Matters’ leaders and testified, “Mental Health is a serious issue facing our community. It has become so bad that many of those suffering with mental illness have wound up in our jail. In fact, our County Commission is planning to spend millions of dollars to expand our jail to meet the needs of those with mental illness. Come on, Lawrence! We can do better than that!”

This passionate plea prompted hundreds of Justice Network Members to cast their vote that night to make “Mental Health” a major priority for Justice Matters. Since then, the organization has aggressively sought a series of improvements focused on collaboration, universal police training, and expanded treatment options.

The call for expanded treatment has centered on the creation of a Mental Health Crisis Center as a place for people to walk in of their own accord or for police/judges to use as an alternative to incarceration when suitable. The creation of such a facility was being considered by the Douglas County Commission before Justice Matters began its research. It later became an essential part of their jail expansion plans following a trip to San Antonio led by Justice Matters to see a Mental Health Crisis Center in operation, as well as the May 7, 2015 Nehemiah Assembly where Justice Matters brought together 1,758 people to Lied Center to demonstrate broad support for a Crisis Center in Lawrence. The Journal World recently reported that 82.2% of 1,000 readers surveyed believed the creation of a Crisis Center is important or very important.

Because the Crisis Center will likely be used more often by people unrelated to the criminal justice system, Justice Matters and community members have suggested that the jail and crisis center be separate items on the ballot. This would allow voters to choose to support/reject each item on their individual merit. The idea of “uncoupling” these two decisions was discussed at length among County Commissioners at a meeting in February, 2016. They voted unanimously to retain the two projects together as an ‘all or nothing’ proposal for the voters to decide.

Recognizing the real possibility that the crisis center and jail expansion proposal may be linked, the Justice Matters Mental Health Research Committee began in December, 2015 to research our jail and jails in Kansas and the rest of the country.

At the Solutions Briefing on March 31, 2016, the Mental Health Steering Committee recommended to the body of Justice Network Members that Justice Matters add Alternatives to Incarceration to its list of priorities. The body voted 92% in favor of the recommendation to:

"Add the priority of criminal justice reform to ensure safe and effective alternatives to incarceration are considered before the jail expansion plan is brought before the public for a vote."

Reserve Seats for Nehemiah Action Assembly on March 30 Donate