FF12: Sedgwick County spends millions on jail overcrowding

SEDGWICK COUNTY, Kan. (KWCH) It's nothing new, but it's getting worse.

"Jail overcrowding has been an issue at the Sedgwick County Jail for over a decade," Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. "It started right after this first jail was built in 1999. The philosophy of if you build it, we'll fill it, that's pretty much the way it is. And so after '99, when the original jail was built, that's when they built the north section. And so after that was built, we're still overcrowded."

To deal with overcrowding, the jail has to send inmates out of county to other jails. At $35 a day per inmate, the cost to taxpayers adds up fast.

In 2016, the county spent $2.3 million alone on placing inmates out of county. That doesn't include any operations or costs related to the Sedgwick County Jail itself or medical costs for inmates.

"You know the misconception is that we hold a lot of inmates for misdemeanor type crimes, for drug-type crimes and that's absolutely not true," Easter said. He said 68% of the jail population is being held for pretrial, which means they are accused of serious crimes that warrant high bonds."

Despite the cost just for placement, Easter said there are also several people who work at the jail who focus on placing inmates out of county. There is the classification department and the operations department.

Jeremy Woodson is a classification sergeant at the Sedgwick County Jail and said he and his team are in charge of determining the pod assignments for new inmates. A lot of those decisions are based on crime severity and background.

"That entails doing the in person interviews with the inmates, we do background checks, we do personal questionnaire and then we put all that information together and that gives us an idea of what type of housing that the inmate should be placed in," Woodson said. "Inmates are asked a series of questions. Those questions correlate to a score. The score then tells us what area they need to be in based on history, current charges, any disciplinary infractions they've had here or in KDOC. All that stuff travels with them."

Once that determination is made, Woodson said it's up to the operations department to organize which specific pods inmates will go to and if they can go out of county.

"Then you also have to understand it is a big process that we go through to figure out who can go out of county and who can't," Easter said.

Inmates cannot go out of county if they have a mental illness or serious illness because they can't be treated anywhere else. Pregnant women cannot go out of county. Inmates with upcoming court dates can't go out of county because transportation costs to and from court would be too costly. Criminals deemed especially violent cannot go out of county.

Easter said those who can go out of county are often inmates who don't fall into those categories or prison inmates. Easter said the jail houses inmates who should be in prison but the prisons are overcrowded too. Because those inmates don't have upcoming court dates, Easter said they're often looked at as the first ones to go.

But it's not a one way street. Other area jails cannot house certain inmates and have to send them to Sedgwick County. Inmates who have mental or serious illnesses often can't be treated elsewhere. Other jails send women too if they don't have female pods.

The obvious solution may be to build more jails or add onto existing jails. Easter said that won't work.

"You could build onto this right now and I would venture to say we would still be overcrowded," Easter said. "I think just in my 28 years of service to my community, just in seeing what's going on, most crime is perpetrated by individuals who have drug habits or alcohol habits. Almost all crimes are."

Easter said the problem is drugs and when individuals commit crimes related to drugs and get put in jail, it doesn't solve their addiction. He said he's calling on the state for a new way to look at criminals.

"We need to look from a state level at building some type of state rehab center where they're not sentenced to prison, they're sentenced to rehab in hopes that we can get them acclimated back into the community, having jobs, being able to afford their families, being able to provide insurance without robbing, stealing and murdering people," Easter said.

Looking at Sedgwick County crime statistics, it's clear crime is increasing in the county. Data show from January of 2012 to July of 2015, the number of people committed to the Sedgwick County Jail for felony crimes was anywhere from 100 to 165 each month. In the fall of 2015, there was a spike in that number. Some months in 2015 and 2016 show nearly 250 new inmates committed for felonies.

"We've been fighting this battle on the war on drugs since I came on the department in '89," Sheriff Easter said. "We're not winning"