It's not reassuring that no one has figured out exactly why inmates are staying longer at the Sedgwick County Jail. But that reflects how complicated the problem is — and how there aren't easy solutions for reducing the jail's population.
Even though the number of new inmates has been declining, the jail's population keeps increasing — the average daily population is up about 100 inmates from last year. The reason for the increase is that inmates are staying in jail longer — the average length of stay from January to June this year was 31.85 days, up from 30.90 days during the same period last year.
Though an extra day in jail on average may not seem like much, the cumulative effect is that the jail is so overcrowded that the county must house about 400 inmates in facilities in other counties. That, in turn, is creating budget strains, which forced the Sedgwick County Commission last week to allocate $2 million from its contingency fund to help cover costs.
Because inmate population constantly changes, it has been difficult for officials to determine why inmates are staying longer on average. But as The Eagle reported Sunday, factors include:
* An increase in sentencing times for certain offenses;
* A shortage of public defenders;
* Delays in court dates because attorneys have difficulty meeting with inmates housed outside the county;
* An inability of inmates to pay their bonds.
The county has made some significant progress in recent years in diverting people from the jail, which has helped slow the jail's population growth but not reverse it. It started a drug court, and Wichita recently established a mental health court. It also has expanded its work-release program and has improved its information management system.
One promising reform — charging municipalities a fee for using the jail so that they might use the facility more sparingly — is being challenged by area cities, including Wichita.
The county also has hired a series of consultants to analyze the jail and offer recommendations, with mixed results. Its current consultant, Justice Concepts Inc., was hired last August but has yet to submit a written report. It also failed to decrease the jail population by 25 percent within 10 months, as its contract required.
State budget cuts and new laws aren't helping either. The state is cutting some mental health services and some programs aimed at helping parolees reintegrate into society. And of particular concern, the penalties for repeat drunken driving are increasing next July, which could result in an annual increase of about 3,700 bed days in the jail, according to county estimates.
Commissioner Gwen Welshimer seems to blame Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw for the population growth, even though the Sheriff's Office must accept all inmates sent to it for criminal cases. But the reality is that the jail population problem is complex, which is why it has been difficult to determine the causes, let alone come up with solutions.