Having made the case for change at the Sedgwick County Jail as a candidate, new Sheriff Jeff Easter now needs to deliver those reforms, as other county officials continue their impressive efforts to stave off another costly jail expansion.
Easter is off to a strong start. Last week the former Wichita Police Department captain, who was appointed interim sheriff on Dec. 17, discussed some of the “sweeping changes” under way at the jail, including a crackdown on gang graffiti and drugs, cellphones and other contraband. He wants to improve training in response to the allegations that six inmates in the county’s custody were victimized by two detention deputies last year, resulting in charges ranging from unlawful sexual relations to felony sodomy. “We have to make sure our people are accountable, ensure that you’re also holding those inmates accountable,” Easter said.
One important measure for safeguarding inmates already was planned – a camera system with recording capability. And it was welcome news that Easter wants to assemble a jail oversight committee drawn from the business, mental health and other local communities, which should help rebuild public trust eroded by the sex-crimes charges and an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit alleging mistreatment of mentally ill inmates.
The jail tests any sheriff’s leadership skills, but Easter will feel more pressure than most to improve morale and ensure safety for inmates and staff alike. At least overcrowding is less of an issue.
At Wednesday’s Sedgwick County Commission meeting, County Manager William Buchanan noted the average daily jail population was 1,374 in November, down from 1,496 in November 2011 and 1,700 a few years ago. He credited measures such as pre-trial services, the day-reporting center, the mental health and drug courts, faster paperwork, better technology and programs to deal with mentally ill individuals, calling it an “amazing statistic” that 92 percent of those who graduated from drug court committed no new crimes in the six months afterward.
A decade after a bigger jail seemed inevitable, it no longer does. That’s a win for the county, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, their area partners – and taxpayers.
Buchanan had a valuable caution for the future, though, noting the county has seen state funds for prevention programs cut from more than $1 million a year to $200,000 last year. It also is lobbying the state to contribute more toward the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch.
The state is “not paying attention to the front end of the system, and that’s going to catch up to us,” Buchanan said.
That challenge will loom not only for Easter, the County Commission and state leaders, but also for new Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett and a District Court with two new judges, tempering the other reasons to be hopeful about the jail’s future.