By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
A handful of written questions were fielded and multiple people spoke during Saline County’s town hall meeting concerning the jail.
Tuesday night, approximately 30 people joined the commissioners, county staff and Saline County Sheriff’s Office personnel for an informational town hall meeting about the future of the jail.
During a special meeting on April 8, consultant James Robertson of Voorhis-Robertson Justice Services presented the commissioners with four suggested options for what the county could do about overcrowding in the Saline County Jail:
- Essentially continue with the current modus operandi, including contract housing at other jails to help alleviate jail overcrowding
- Renovate the existing jail and build a booking/release center
- Renovation and add capacity at the current site
- Build a new facility at a new location
Those four options were the basis of the town hall discussion, during which audience members were given the opportunity to submit written questions and speak about the issue.
About the Saline County Jail
Saline County Sheriff Roger Soldan provided a brief history of the current jail, noting that the sheriff’s office and a 62-bed capacity jail were built in 1962. By 1989, the average daily population of the jail had exceeded capacity. Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 1992 for a $7.2 million addition to the jail, which allowed for the addition to be paid for (and the tax to end) by the time the addition was completed in 1995. The total number of beds was 192, including 40 in the old jail.
Soldan said the current facility has been over capacity since 2010, forcing the county to contract with other county jails beginning in October 2011. According to information provided by Soldan, from October 2011 through December 2018, the sheriff’s office has spent more than $5.3 million to house Saline County inmates in other county jails. That figure includes $366,584.70 in transport expenses, which include transportation officers’ salaries, Soldan said.
The amount per inmate stay is set by each county and can change on a yearly basis, Soldan said.
“We don’t have any control over that cost,” he said. “That’s not something that’s controlled by statute.”
Additionally, the average number of inmates housed elsewhere went from 26 in 2011 to 86.4 in 2018. The number of trips for transporting Saline County inmates to and from other jails went from 22 in 2011 to 610 in 2018.
“In 2011, we contacted the National Institute of Corrections to ask them to do a system review of the criminal justice system in general,” Soldan said. “The biggest thing that came out of that is that they recommended that we hire a consultant to complete a needs assessment.”
One of the suggestions from the consultant back then was the establishment of a drug court.
“That was something that had been discussed already, but with his recommendation, I think he kind of got us off the bubble to get drug court going,” Soldan said.
Additionally, the criminal justice complex and the jail expansion was put on the ballot in 2014 and was voted down, he said.
In 2015, the county commission, in an attempt to lower the amount spent on contract housing appointed a jail reduction committee, he said.
Soldan said that in 2016, when he became sheriff, he gave the commissioners, including several who were new to the board, information about the history of the jail and its needs. He said he told them that in 2017, the county would probably spend $1.2 million for contract housing.
“Fortunately, I didn’t hit that number, but I’m not too far off and we ended up with $1,149,000 in 2017,” Soldan said.
“The population did come down a little bit in 2018, but that’s not uncommon for us to see a dip and then the trend goes up,” he added.
In 2017, the commission decided to hire a consultant to do a needs assessment, Soldan said.
“One of his recommendations was pretrial services. They were implemented at the recommendation of the consultant, and that just started here recently,” he said.
The jail reduction committee
Annie Grevas, community corrections director, then spoke about the history of the jail reduction committee. Grevas said the committee looked at ways to not only reducing the number of total inmates but also reducing the number of persons returning to jail for two or more times. Grevas said the committee looked at best practices and a multitude of data. Additionally, the committee met with defense attorneys, court personnel, and judges.
“We kind of got to the point where we didn’t really feel like we could impact as a committee the reduction of the bedspace, but more the recidivism,” she said. “So if we could really know what kind of client’s in there on a regular basis, what those needs are of that client, maybe we could reduce the return time.”
County Administrator Andrew Manley reiterated that Robertson had been hired in 2017 to conduct a jail needs assessment. Manley said the needs assessment consisted of three core tasks:
- To analyze the current inmate population
- Provide recommendations to deal with the inmate population
- Project future capacity needs
Manley said that in order for the jail reduction committee to know how to address the inmate population, it needed to know who was in jail, why were they in jail, how long were they in jail, and what their reason for release was.
“After the data was compiled, it became immediately apparent that the average length of stay was the primary driver to average daily population,” Manley said.
Robertson gave the county three recommendations based on the data, Manley said. Those recommendations were:
- Implementing the pre-trial program could have a a significant impact on reducing the jail population
- Analyzing the court hearing dockets
- Analyzing sentencing decision-making
Manley said the latter two recommendations are still in the exploratory phase, but are recommended as the next steps in improving the county’s system. Once Robertson had a good idea about the current inmate population and the recommendations to reduce the inmate population, he could properly project future jail capacity needs, he said.
“Assuming the pre-trial program was implemented and changes were made to docketing and sentencing decision-making, Jim Robertson still estimated a small, but steady increase in average daily population over the next 20 years,” Manley said.
According to Manley, Robertson derived two scenarios to estimate average daily population. Scenario No. 1 showed the Saline County Jail needing 417 beds and Scenario No. 2 showed a need of 338 beds, Manley said.
Questions from the audience
Persons in the audience were given the opportunity to submit written questions for county officials to answer. They are as follows.
It is my understanding that the current jail facility was build so it could be expanded vertically. If it is, why would additional ground be needed?
“I’m not exactly sure I was told it wasn’t,” Soldan said. “That would be something that could absolutely be looked at. The issue with going up is the staffing that is required to manage each floor. It would be like the security in this room. It’s pretty easy for me to secure this room, but I can’t secure the one above me because I can’t see what’s going on, and so you run into that with a jail that’s stacked.”
What kind of updates or renovations are needed for the current jail?
“The list is getting more lengthy every year,” Soldan said.
He explained that some of the needs include a new roof, sewer lines, intercom, and other ongoing expenses associated with the aging jail building.
Has there been talk of use of night court that might reduce the number of overnight stays?
Grevas said there had been talk about utilizing a night court, but the problem is that there aren’t enough judges to cover such an endeavor. She said that Saline County even offered to pay for a judge, but the state supreme court said “no.”
“We looked at various options. We were willing to even go to a different space, but you can’t buy a judge and you can’t just build a courtroom, and so those were the main concerns. It goes right along with we could use another juvenile drug court. We could use a mental health court,” Grevas said. “There’s a lot of things out there that we know would impact, but until the legislators decide that Saline County should be getting their judges that they were predicted to get many, many years ago, I don’t see that as being an option, unfortunately.”
In 2014 and in 2018-19, the county used the same consultant. In 2014, his proposal was to build a criminal justice center and a jail for $46.5 million. In 2019, the numbers that came back for a jail, new construction, was $75 million to $82 million. Why the increase?
“Well, obviously, in five years, everything’s gone up immensely as far as I’m concerned,” Commission Chair Bob Vidricksen said. “The construction costs have skyrocketed, No. 1. No. 2, I think Commissioner Weese brought it up that actually the cost per bed is cheaper in 2019 than it was in 2014 as far as construction costs go, the number of beds versus the cost. That is the dramatic increase there.”
Manley said the jail item on the 2014 ballot compares the closest to the current Option No. 3. He noted, however that comparing the current recommended jail project to what was proposed on the 2014 ballot is like comparing apples to oranges.
“It is far more expensive to build the square footage related to a jail than it is to do finished space or office space,” Manley said.
Why are the bonds so high? Was this taken into consideration during the assessment? Could the bond schedule be reworked to accommodate that personal need?
“Part of the bond schedule was impacted through our pretrial program. What the judges wanted to do was pull away from the existing bond system and look at opportunities for clients that can’t afford those higher bonds, that are lower risk, to get out,” Grevas said. “And so now, if you look at the pretrial information and you compare their bond matrix compared to the old one, you’ll see a large reduction in the bond. If the client falls into a level of risk and the judges have determined that risk based on the assessment that they established and developed, they fall into certain categories of risk. They then are given certain amounts of bond, and they are lower than what the previous. If they’re willing to participate in pre-trial, they get that opportunity. If they choose not to participate in pre-trial, the judges have no other choice but to go back to the old bonding system.”
For the inmates who are incarcerated for more than a 90-day period, are the majority of them already convicted of a crime?
“You would have to look at every individual inmate. In most cases, no. Typically, if they have been convicted of a crime, they’ve either been moved on to prison or put on community corrections,” Soldan said. “Most of the people who are there are there for pre-trial issues.”
What are some of the factors driving the increase of length of stay and are there ways to look at decreasing those lengths of stay?
Soldan said that one issue that is driving length of stay is contract housing.
“I’ve got a third of my inmates outside of the county so they can’t see their attorneys. Their attorneys are welcome to drive up and see them. That said, that’s typically not going to happen, especially if they’re court-appointed attorneys. They have so many clients, there’s no way for them to go see them, so they’ll wait til they get here and try to meet with their clients right when they go into court,” Soldan said. “If they’re not ready to move forward and don’t have the information they need, they ask for a continuance. That continuance drives our average length of stay. So in that circumstance, we’re our own worst enemy.”
Soldan said the average length of stay really began to skyrocket when the county began housing inmates in other county jails.
Grevas noted that some inmates have more than one case going at a time, which also increases their length of stay.
Deputy County Attorney Amy Norton, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, pointed out that while the number of crimes is down, the severity of the crimes committed is increasing, and the pre-trial program doesn’t address the more severe crimes. She also noted that public defenders are understaffed.
Other suggestions/comments from the audience for/about lowering the inmate population in the Saline County Jail included the following.
- Arrest fewer people
- Eliminate cash bonding
- Stop piling on charges to force a plea bargain
- Put more money toward treatment of addictions
- Address society’s moral code and rethink eliminating scripture from schools
- Quit making jail too comfortable
- Control the human population in order to reduce the jail population
- Don’t be soft on criminals
- Hold attorneys accountable
- Rework the bond schedule
- Make sure mental health services are available for those who need it
- Only people who are a danger to society should be in jail
- Do more personal bonds