Jackson County works to overcome jail overcrowding

Jackson County works to overcome jail overcrowding

     KANSAS CITY, Mo., Dec. 1, 1997 (Jackson County Executive Office)— The Jackson County Jail Annex has been out of the headlines for the last few months, but the events of the weekend of November 2 were a reminder of just how important the new building will be to the future of criminal justice in our county.

That weekend, the number of inmates in custody at the Jackson County Detention Center rose above 624. As a result, the jail was forced, under federal court order, to release some inmates.

Why? The reason dates back to 1986, when inmates sued the county, complaining of jail overcrowding. At the time, the inmate population was approaching 700 people. U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple imposed a maximum limit of 624 inmates for the jail. Under his court order, if the jail exceeded that limit, it would pay up to $5,000 a day in fines.

When I took office in January 1995, plans were underway to build a new jail at a cost of $30 million with projected operating expenses of $4 million a year. I was not only concerned about the expense for such a facility, but also questioned whether it would solve the jail overcrowding issue if other steps weren’t also taken to reduce the need for inmate space.

First, we addressed building a new jail. We redesigned the proposed jail annex so that it would house 200 inmates but cost only about $15 million to construct. Then, working with Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Claire McCaskill, I formulated a plan to fund the construction in August 1996, and the funding and the annex plan were approved by the legislature the following month. Under the plan, the county uses revenues raised by the county’s quarter-cent anti-drug sales tax, which generates about $15 million per year. Much of the revenue for the new jail expansion comes from previous anti-drug tax corrections money set aside for the expansion, and from a surplus accumulated under the tax since 1990.

But we had to do more than just build a new jail. We also had to build a more efficient criminal justice system. Without building more efficiency into existing criminal justice procedures, any new additional jail space will be overflowing by the time the jail annex was completed. Since becoming County Executive, and with the cooperation of the judges, prosecutor, public defender and state Probation and Parole Department, I have also found ways to help reduce the jail population without risking public safety.

An analysis of the jail population showed that most inmates were being held not because they were convicted of a crime, but because they were awaiting trial and were unable to make bail. Many were not accused of committing a violent crime. And it seemed unfair that many citizens were being held before trial for non-violent offenses solely because their families could not afford a few hundred dollars to post bond. At the county’s expense of $50 per day per prisoner, this was an expensive proposition.

We appointed a Population Control Coordinator who provides information to judges concerning the jail population, thus helping them separate truly dangerous offenders from those who have committed minor offenses. Judges can then make informed decisions on bond. There are also more options now available to help judges monitor those on bond and expanded sentencing options for nonviolent offenders.

Still, the jail population occasionally swells, requiring the county to release some inmates. In 1995, the federal judge approved a system which designates what type of inmate would have to be released if the population exceeded 624. This system ranks inmates based on the severity of their charges. The federal order requires the release of persons charged with the least serious crimes first.

Since this federally mandated system was implemented, the county jail has had to release inmates 19 times over the past 18 months, for a total of 75 inmates. The most recent release was November 2, which totaled nine inmates.

What types of people were released? Of the 75 released:

  • 22 were serving sentences for misdemeanors, such as non-payment of child support, tampering with a motor vehicle, and driving with a revoked license or driving while intoxicated.
  • Ten were convicted and serving “shock probation” – a limited jail sentence that may be 30 days or less.
  • Nine were arrested on a warrant for highway patrol tickets.
  • Seven were appealing municipal ordinance violations.
  • Twenty-one were released who were awaiting trial – all of whom were facing charges which judges and prosecutors felt did not require a high bond.

The release of nine inmates on November 2 was the largest one-time release in 18 months. However, all of them will be supervised by the court, and, if they fail to appear for their court dates, warrants will be issued for their arrest and detention. Their release was exactly the same as if they had been released on bond.

In our attempts to make our justice system more efficient, we will always be on guard to maintain public safety. Though it is rarely used, the federal court will sometimes require inmate releases, and when that happens, you can be sure that the county, the sheriff’s department, and the prosecutor’s office will closely monitor the situation for the protection of our citizens.

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Note: From 1997 to 1998, “Jackson County News Update” newspaper columns were written by Rod Perlmutter, the Public Information Officer of Jackson County, Mo. This column appeared under the byline of Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields and was distributed to several publications in the Kansas City area. Jackson County has more than 600,000 residents, including most of Kansas City, Mo.

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