County Disrespects Sheriff on Jail Funding

Last week, Saline County Commissioner Dave Smith said there is little the Commission can do to reduce the jail population.  Perhaps.

Citizen Norman Mannel said issues with jail overpopulation will continue until the core issues are identified.  I see the core issue as having to do with respect.

Those who criminally violate the law don’t respect the lives and property of others; they may disrespect their own well-being (sobriety).  Drug Court addresses substance abuse issues in ways that promote respect and correct for disrespectful behaviors.  Restorative justice takes a different respectful approach and has demonstrated success with youthful offenders.

Smith volunteers in the jail.  He has also worked to re-establish communications with the Sheriff.  Recently, the County Counselor sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office, on behalf of Commissioners.  The letter reminded the Sheriff that before his department exceeds its budget, the Sheriff is to appear before the Commission.  It also advised the Sheriff that if the budget is inadequate, discretionary spending is to be curtailed.

I found this letter to be disrespectful, given the Commission acknowledges that they have not adequately funded the Sheriff’s Office.  For example, the 2017 budget for the contract housing of inmates is less than what was spent in 2015.  And the 2016 jail census is higher than 2015’s census.

Both the Sheriff’s Office and the Commission oversee a contract for managing the jail’s food service.  This contract has been in place for more than five years.  It is past time to go out to bid again.  It may also be desirable to bid out the jail’s commissary and laundry functions.

After voters defeated a measure to build a new justice center in 2014, the Sheriff humbly appeared before the Commission (that then consisted of Randy Duncan, Jim Gile and John Price).  He asked for the Commissions help in determining what next steps were to be taken.  In 2015 and 2016, the expanded Commission took very few actions.  There’s been at least one significant failure of the septic system.  The fuel bills for operating the jail seem high to me; I wonder if weatherizing the facility would bring about utility savings.  The Commission weatherized the remodeled Health Department and utility savings were immediately noted.

For more than three years, the Commission has repeatedly talked about making much needed increases to correction officers’ wages.  They’ve failed to take meaningful action.  Recently, Mother Jones printed articles about how guards at federal private prisons are severely underpaid.  The guards partially aligned themselves with prisoners in order to be able to go home safely at night.  If we expect correction officers to be on the front line of dealing with disrespectful behavior, they should be compensated appropriately.

In 2015 and 2016, the County Commission increased the amount of money it provides to Central Kansas Mental Health Center.  Yet, the annual contribution per resident is almost half of what other counties provide their mental health centers.

The County Administrator has taken issue with how the Sheriff and his officers have spent money and reported those expenditures.  If problems are chronic, perhaps an audit is needed to redefine expectations.

County Administrator Rita Deister seems to have locked horns with Sheriff Glen Kochanowski.  The County has problems in how it interacts with the City.  Other County staff seem to support maintenance of the status quo when dealing with the jail, and this seems to involve some expensive solutions.  Perhaps this lack of innovation should be reflected in performance evaluations.

Commissioners can’t be expected to be experts in criminal justice.  But, they have access to experts at the state and national meetings they could attend.  Often, money is well spent to get an outside perspective.  Perhaps even the Salina Police Department could assist.  Chief Brad Nelson has implemented many innovative ideas; some of his officers have worked in military law enforcement.  But, if key people don’t talk to each other, the cost to taxpayers becomes high.

I’ve attended nearly all of the Committee to Reduce the Jail Population meetings.

  • If the goal was to promote inmate work programs, perhaps representatives of KansasWorks and technical schools should have been given “seats at the table”.
  • If that goal was to promote having inmates get their GED, then experts in adult education should have been given “seats at the table”.
  • If the goal is to help inmates build life skills, one has to remember that some are “detoxing” and many are very focused on meeting with their lawyers and planning for court appearances. For decades, videos have been produced to teach these skills.

Smith has said that being sent to jail isn’t viewed as much of a punishment by some individuals.  He advocates for making the experience more “uncomfortable”.  He’s suggested “whippings” and feeding inmates “stale bread and carrots” as alternatives.  He hasn’t elaborated on how his plans differ from other “uncomfortable” forms of punishment that may be classified as torture.  I question how his unarticulated plans build respect.

During the 2016 primary, Ellsworth County voters got to weigh in on their own jail overpopulation issues.

  • The seated County Attorney requested an additional $60,000/year to prosecute drug cases. He did not win his primary.
  • Two Sheriff candidates discussed the relative importance of identifying I-70 drivers who may have come from Colorado. Certain aged drivers and makes of vehicles meet profiles of individuals who may have traveled to Colorado’s to partake in its green industry.  The candidate who put less emphasis on profiling drivers who may have come from Colorado won his primary.

Saline County is fortunate that Ellen Mitchell will continue in her role as County Attorney.  Roger Soldan appears well prepared to assume the mantel of Sheriff.  Given that voters were asked to make sweeping changes to which judges were retained, it didn’t seem appropriate to use the election as a time to raise public awareness about jail issues.

In early 2015, when the three incoming county commissioners visited each county department, I found it disconcerting the enthusiasm with which some of the Sheriff’s officers sought to redress funding challenges by actively seeking forfeiture money.  When law enforcement intercepts a vehicle involved in drug crimes, the arresting agency often gets to sell the vehicle and any other assets the convicted felon has with them at the time of arrest.  In Saline County, any forfeiture monies go into the County’s general account.

There’s a surprising number of individuals in the Saline County Jail that aren’t from this county or near-by counties.  I’ve not been able to get clear on just how many individuals who were “just passing through” are being detained.  On the other hand, when CNN did a news story about “Mexican druglord El Chapo” Guzman, CNN showed a national map of where Guzman’s gangs were reported to be active.  Besides Kansas City and Wichita, Salina and Great Bend were also highlighted.

I wish I understood how big a problem drugs are in this community.  I’ve tried to identify peer communities and compare statistics.  I understand why patrol officers recently stopped a vehicle that was speeding at 89 miles per hour; they subsequently found enough drugs to charge the occupants with distribution of controlled substances.  Saline County taxpayers will pay to jail and try these individuals.

Fortunately, some groups are looking at how many individuals are going to jail/prison and how long they are incarcerated.  Changes to the judicial system will come slowly.

We can take action to bring greater control to jail costs.  Elected officials need to hold program bureaucrats accountable.  We have to find ways to talk about difficult subjects.  Advanced citizenship requires we deal with these issues and each other with respect.