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OPINION: Are We Asking the Right Questions About Probation Violators?

Karen ShadeApril 18, 2019

When the initiative to build a new jail failed in 2014, county officials took up the question of what to do next.  Former Commissioner Dave Smith noticed how frequently “probation violation” appeared on booking photos, carried on websites for the sheriff and three local news agencies.

Smith had several ideas for reducing the jail population.  He proposed “whipping” some inmates in lieu of making them serve jail time.  He proposed feeding inmates “stale bread and carrots”.  For some inmates, the jail cell served as a “man cave” and the jail itself provided shelter and regular meals.  Smith and others correctly share a concern that once an individual is arrested, they may lose their job, their family and their home.

I never understood how violating an individual’s civil rights in jail was going to make them respect the civil rights of the citizenry when that individual got out of jail.

On March 1, 2018, officials collected data on the 268 inmates who had charges stemming from arrests in Saline County.  Some were housed at the Saline County Jail, others were in “contract housing” in other county jails.  The results are summarized in a “Saline County, KS Data Analysis, May 2018” (authorship unknown).

Among many factors studied, for 18% of inmates, a “probation violation” was the “most serious charge” they were facing.  For 19%, “failure to appear” was their most serious charge.  Another 9% had “other non-compliance” charges.

Quoting from the report:  “Nearly half (46% or 123) inmates were in jail for a non-compliance-related reason (failure to appear, probation violation, other).  Approximately one-fifth of inmates were in jail because of a crime against another person or because of a drug offense.”

Court Administrator Todd Heitschmidt told me that the County Attorney’s office strives to get anyone arrested on a probation violation before the court within five working days.  County Attorney Ellen Mitchell wrote, in an e-mail, that “A motion to revoke probation is usually not filed until the defendant has MANY violations.  There may be 40 or 50 violations.  They may be for missing curfew, new charges, absconding, etc.  It has been my experience that probation officers exhaust a lot of resources before they request a motion to revoke probation.”

So, “non-compliance” issues are filling our jail.  Is this because of procedural issues?  Are arrestees defiant or ignorant of the need to comply with the Court’s requirements?

A few years ago, I observed Drug Court.  Individuals arrested on relatively minor drug charges and who are willing to attend weekly Drug Court meetings, do frequent drug testing, and meet other requirements can remain out of jail if they comply with program requirements.

On this day, one young woman failed to keep an appointment.  She said she didn’t have money to take a cab.  Judge Jared Johnson took her to task.  If she was privileged to participate in Drug Court, she was expected to take the bus.  In rapt attention, 30+ other Drug Court participants listened as Judge Jared Johnson educate them on one new reality of sober living.

Equally important, free bus passes are readily available, specifically to help individuals keep mandatory appointments.  But, lack of transportation, especially for those living outside of Salina city limits, may hamper an inmate’s suitability to participate in Drug Court.

As part of other efforts to reduce the jail population, officials work with Catholic Charities and Central Kansas Mental Health Services to insure those recently released from jail have necessary medications, clean clothes, and help locating housing/food so they don’t “bounce back” into jail.  Are these efforts sufficient?

So, if county officials are really serious about reducing the jail population, perhaps they need to ask this question:  What can we do to insure that that who appear before the Courts will comply with the Courts orders?

The defiant ones need jail time.  Those ignorant need to “time to think”.  But, tax payers shouldn’t be on the hook for paying for jail stays when jail and court procedures can be enhanced.  And to this end, it is encouraging that a new pre-trial assessment program may bring about a 10-15% reduction in the inmate population.

Opinion piece written by Karen Shade of Salina

Copyright © Rocking M Media, 2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced without Rocking M Media’s express consent.

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