Violent crime in the past couple of years has overloaded the Sedgwick County Jail and put the inmate population at its highest in a decade.
To help remedy the problem, Sedgwick County Commissioners on Wednesday approved a $2.6 million injection into the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office budget to sustain the jail through 2019. Sheriff Jeff Easter said the department has been paying to keep roughly 200 inmates out of county at any given time. He said the renovations at the jail, expected to be completed March 2020, would add 63 beds.
Easter said 70% of inmates have an addiction problem, with methamphetamine being the largest problem.
Easter said meth drives most of the violent and property crime in the county. State legislation led to meth labs moving from rural basements down to Mexico, which flooded the market and exacerbated the mental health problem.
Easter said the price of an ounce of meth today is one-fifth of what it was in 2011.
“Again, methamphetamine is much different than cocaine and those types of things,” Easter said. “It actually affects the brain which emulates mental illness. So we are seeing a boom in mental illness across this city and this county, which attributes to the jail population.
“So, yes, until we can get a handle on the methamphetamine use I don’t really see this (inmate problem) ending any time soon.”
Just before commissioners voted, County Chief Financial Officer Lindsay Poe Rousseau said Easter’s department returned nearly $1.5 million in unused funding to the county last year.
A graph provided by the sheriff’s office showed the department returned more than $1 million in four of the past five years. In 2017, the one year it returned less than $1 million, the Sheriff’s Office returned $171,682 since it used roughly $1 million to add 178 beds at the jail annex.
So far this year, the jail has averaged 1,510 inmates despite having a maximum capacity of around 1,310, Easter said, adding it’s the highest average since 2009.
The largest line item in the $2.6 million approval will be roughly $1 million for salaries. Overtime costs are up 13.6 percent, according to the sheriff’s office.
The second-largest request is $900,000 for housing inmates out of county. Part of the reason for housing the inmates out of the county has to do with replacing tiles that inmates broke up and sharpened to use as weapons. Easter said they’ve had to send an additional 50 inmates out of the county while they fix the problem.
Easter fears federal initiatives to address the spike in Wichita’s violent crime could put a greater burden on the jail.
The Wichita Police Department has been the recipient of two U.S. Department of Justice grants in less than a year. Wichita was chosen because of its high crime rate, which is more than twice the national average. The WPD also said shootings doubled between 2014 and 2018.
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay has pointed to recent initiatives already helping with the crime rate, citing several types of violent crimes have decreased in 2019.
The new grants could take that further. One of the grant programs uses data technology to help law enforcement. The National Public Safety Partnership has lowered crime rates in the few dozen cities with the grants. In Compton, California, homicides decreased 40 percent in 2017 while more than 100 human trafficking-related arrests were made.
Easter said the problem with the federal initiatives is the lack of funding on the back end. Assuming the program works, there will be more arrests, which will affect the jail and restorative justice programs.
“Is this really a spike or is this the new normal?”
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell asked if the commission needed to adjust the department’s 2020 budget to address the rise in inmates.
Easter said he didn’t want to adjust the budget yet. Instead, he wants to see how adding the 63 beds in the renovation and finishing the tile-floor changes that will add back 50 inmates from out of county before asking for an adjustment.
“Is this really a spike or is this the new normal?” Howell asked.
Easter responded: “As long as meth stays where it is at, I think it will continue to be” the norm.
He said inmates waiting a few weeks longer for probation hearings added to the problem. Easter said he’s talked with a judge and they are working on a solution.
Easter also talked about reducing the amount of time non-violent offenders, who are less likely to re-offend, stay in jail.
He later said adding addiction services instead of just releasing inmates would drastically reduce recidivism. But, he said, that would take a hefty amount of additional funding. The funding would likely need to come from the state or federal level, he said.
“You’ve managed the department well. The community and the public needs to know that. There are just some things are just out of your control,” Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said, adding the jail problem needed to be a top priority when county officials meet with state legislators. “We by far have the largest court system in the state. We by far have the most people in our jail. We are a different animal and we need to be treated differently.”