OPINION: County’s Justice System Key to Jail Population Issue

At Tuesday’s Saline County Commission meeting, commissioners will consider taking up the work formerly done by a “Committee to Reduce the Jail Population”.  I believe the issue could be broadened to look at more of the county’s justice system.

This is one woman’s experience.

A woman and her companion decided to pull of the interstate to get gas in Salina.  They also went to a big box retailer to pull “a heist”.  They were arrested, jailed and charged.  She was approved for Saline County’s pre-trial release program; she had no convictions for violent crimes but had “failed to appear” for four previous court appearances.  Upon release, she headed for her destination—Arkansas.  She failed to return because her brothers were reluctant to drive her back to Salina in the snow.

Fastforward, a law enforcement officer in Arkansas did a welfare check on the occupants of a car.  He found her and an outstanding warrant for her arrest.  She was extradited, at an expense of close to $4,000, and booked into the Saline County Jail in March.

Because of Covid 19, it took until September for her case to go before a Saline County District Court.  She was sentenced to pay her extradition costs and to complete a 21-month long Drug Court program.  She has no ties to the community.  But the decision to get gas in Salina may result in her spending 28 months here.

Her charges are serious; eight original charges were bargained down to one.  This is her seventh felony.  Any future deviations will result in her being sent to prison.

In Washington State, her former residence, she estimates she might have served her full punishment with 90 days of jail time.

In Saline County, she served 7 months in jail.  For a month, she’s resided in a homeless shelter and will transfer to a treatment facility for their 7-week program.  Upon completion, she hopes to reside in a sober living house.  She plans to find work to pay extradition and other court costs.  Among these will be $450 for completing 200 required UAs (urine analysis tests) at Community Corrections.  She says she hasn’t been two-weeks sober for many years.

She’s hopeful an interstate compact will allow her to serve out her time in Washington.  She’d like to be there for the birth of her new grandson.

Readers may want to debate aspects of her sentencing.  She agrees it is law enforcement’s role to protect retailers.  She was told local law enforcement would have extradited her from Hawaii if she’d have gone there.  She acknowledges no one could have predicted the impact of Covid 19 on the court systems.  She knew the County Attorney follows state-mandated sentencing guidelines.

Even she acknowledges that with her “flight history”, she may not have been an appropriate candidate for “pretrial release”.  And she has come to terms with spending the next two years in Salina, Kansas.

But who is looking at the fiscal cost of all of this?  Drug Court was designed to keep people out of jail, but in this specific case, it is keeping an out-of-state resident bound to Saline County for over two years.  Saline County residents are footing the bill for jail housing, the shelter and sober living, and treatment costs.  Former Sheriff Glen Kochanowski said that the cost of housing an inmate in the Saline County Jail hovered around $50/day in 2014.  Current officials are very tightlipped about the present cost of housing one inmate for one day.

Soon, voters will decide whether Saline County will fund a sales tax increase to be used to build a new jail.  But, is the current jail filled primarily with Saline County residents?  Kansans?  Or people passing through?  The January 2020 study paid for by the Saline County Commission did not break down the inmates by residency.  When asked about this, officials ignored the question.

It is unwise to draw broad conclusions from the experiences on one former inmate, as all solutions create new problems.  But, hers is not a unique experience.  Her “companion” is about finished serving his prison sentence in Washington State.  He is charged with a parole violation in Saline County.  It is not yet known whether law enforcement will travel to Washington State to bring him here “to face justice”.

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Opinion piece written by Karen Shade of Salina