As Jackson County officials look at ideas for a possible new county jail, they face a shifting landscape.
Some local programs such as Drug Court and house arrest work well and could be expanded, but others need to be retooled, 16th Circuit Court Presiding Judge David M. Byrn told county legislators this week. He touched on the nationwide debate about incarceration generally and suggested the state of Missouri cannot be relied on to ease the strains the corrections system is experiencing.
His suggestion – echoed by the chair of the County Legislature – is that a new county jail be part of a campus where offenders could get services including substance abuse treatment, mental health care, even job training. All of that would be aimed at making offenders less likely to commit more crimes.
County officials for the last few years have discussed replacing the jail, which is crowded and described as outdated and expensive to operate. County Executive Frank White Jr. has said he favors a new jail.
“For years we’ve seen the jail population grow, and it’s been above capacity for some time,” Judge Byrn said. He stressed that some people need to be in prison or jail but said “... incarcerating everyone is not the answer.”
Byrn outlined several factors county officials will have to juggle:
• The state’s prison population, at least until recently, has been growing. The number of women in prison has grown significantly. This added number of inmates is expected to create the need for two new state prisons – though the likelihood of the state actually doing that is remote.
“ … I think there is a reluctance from the state to incur that cost,” he said.
What will happen, Byrn said, is more inmates placed on probation or released earlier on parole.
“And that is an impact we would feel in Jackson County, for instance,” he said.
• Missouri and other states have been trying to address inequities and constitutional issues arising from the cash bail system. That system hits the poor the hardest, and Missouri has rewritten the rules so that clear and convincing evidence of the crime, presented at a hearing, is needed for pre-trial detention.
“The reality is that more defendants will be released” before trial, Byrn said.
• A high percentage of those in the local and state corrections systems have drug and/or mental health issues. But jail isn’t the best setting for treatment, in part because care often cannot run long enough and there’s no after-care. “In-community” treatment is the best approach, he said.
“Getting it in jail or in prison is not the best way to do it,” he said.
County Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, pointed out that state legislators keep cutting funding for mental health programs.
“And I don’t think a lot of them give a damn about what we have to deal with in Jackson County,” she said.
• There are alternatives such as Drug Court, a diversionary program.
“It is successful, and it is essentially full,” Byrn said.
Also: Veterans Court, Mental Health Court and Family Court.
“Honestly all of these programs could probably be expanded,” he said.
• Another alternative is house arrest in which defendants wear ankle bracelets. Byrn said that’s a good option in many cases. The county has expanded that to about 100 slots, and Byrn said that could easily be doubled.
The state also presents the county with other challenges.
Legislative Chair Theresa Galvin said it costs the county $110 a day to house a prisoner – that is, a defendant awaiting trial on state charges – but the state only picks up $22.58 of that cost, and then only after a conviction that leads to prison time.
“There’s an extreme imbalance there,” Galvin said.
The state also is millions of dollars in arrears on those payments to counties – $3.52 million to Jackson County alone, according to the county executive’s office.