Does Kansas City overuse jails? Commission looks for better solutions

One of the most effective ways to make sure someone shows up at their trial is to send them a text reminder with their court date.

But instead of texting criminal defendants, Kansas City spends millions of dollars every year to hold people in jail while they await trial.

Like nearly all other American cities, Kansas City has long used its municipal jail as a catchall punishment for those who violate city codes — whether they’re convicted for violating a domestic violence probation or if they’re simply awaiting trial for a low-level charge.

“People lose jobs, and they lose their homes and apartments and their vehicles by spending time in jail,” said Amaia Cook, who serves on the commission looking to lower the number of people locked up on minor criminal charges. “Our community members have needs, and we know that locking people up is not a way to meet those needs.”

A Kansas City commission argues for more creative solutions to reduce crime — like those court date-reminder texts — that could save taxpayers money without jailing defendants and putting people’s housing and jobs at risk by locking them up.

For someone living under a bridge or in the midst of a severe psychotic episode, people arguing for change say that jail does nothing to resolve the underlying issues. At worst, it can make the problem more severe and launch a relentless cycle of jail sentence after jail sentence. That, they say, ends up increasing crime, not reducing it.

In June, the Kansas City Council voted to form the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission to explore alternatives that can spare more people from the criminal justice system and steer them toward social services. The commission formed with support from Decarcerate KC, a group that advocates to end the city’s reliance on incarceration and policing.

Who is locked up on Kansas City jail charges?

National prison policy experts say that municipal jails are the easiest places to reform because the charges tend to stem from lower-stakes and nonviolent crime.

Kansas City has not had its own jail since 2009. Instead, the city rented out beds in the Jackson County Jail until its contract expired in 2019. Since then, people facing municipal charges or serving short jail sentences have gone to the Vernon and Johnson county jails in Missouri. The city has access to 105 beds between the two jails.

The city’s jail population is disproportionately Black — more than two-thirds of people held before and after conviction are Black, despite Black residents only making up about 27% of the city’s population.

A majority of people booked by Kansas City’s municipal court are nonviolent offenders — only 1 in 3 inmates is booked on a violent charge, often related to domestic violence.

Courtney Wachal, a Kansas City municipal judge who presides over the domestic violence docket, said those cases usually involve someone facing a new domestic violence charge while on probation. Wachal serves on the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission.

“You are, at that point, not availing yourself of the resources that we are providing as a court and continuing to be a risk to public safety,” she said.

Assault charges working their way through municipal court tend to come from cases where nobody was injured. Injuries in an assault more often lead to felony charges tried in district courts, not municipal court. The same goes for drug possession and drug dealing.

The other two-thirds of inmates get booked on nonviolent offenses. That’s what the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission is focusing on.

That includes theft, vandalism, loitering and drug paraphernalia charges. Ordinarily, those charges don’t come with a jail sentence. But courts turn to jail for repeat offenders. The problem, advocates say, is that jail only makes it more likely that a crime will happen again.

The costs of incarceration

For more than 2 out of 5 people booked in the Kansas City jail, the first offense is just the beginning.

“Imagine if you were snatched out of your life, without the opportunity to prepare for it, for three or four days,” said Sarah Staudt, the policy and advocacy manager for the left-leaning Prison Policy Initiative. “There would be major consequences in your life. And of course, those consequences are even more extreme for people who are right on the edge to begin with.”

And the research reflects this, Staudt said.

A 2018 study by the University of Missouri-Kansas City found that 1 in 6 people lost their jobs after just three days in jail. If they spent longer than three days in jail, more than half lost their jobs.

About a third of people who were incarcerated also reported negative effects on their housing stability.

“Jail increases the likelihood that people will be rearrested in the future,” Staudt said. “That destabilization helps no one and ultimately, it creates more crime.”

On any given day, about half of the Kansas City jail’s population has been in jail before in the past six years, according to the city’s detention center needs assessment from 2020.

Wachal, the Kansas City judge, said the municipal court tries to enroll offenders in community-based programs like court-mandated therapy and addiction recovery programs for low-level offenses. If the court sends someone to jail, it’s often because they have not participated in those programs and have been arrested again.

She said that often comes from mental illness, housing or transportation problems. If they don’t have a home or car, or if they’re suffering from issues like psychosis, they may not have the capability to make appointments.

“These people that we’re hoping to intervene with, at least from my perspective, they are not people who should be in jail,” the judge said. “They’re people who need services in the moment and reintegration into the community.”

Otherwise, Wachal said, the city is spending money on jailing someone and increasing the likelihood they’ll land in jail again.

So what can Kansas City do instead?

The Alternatives to Incarceration Commission is due to file a recommendation to City Council in time for the budget planning process in the spring.

It’s been fielding recommendations from nonprofit groups, other local governments, the Kansas City Police Department and courtroom staff.

Most of the recommendations generally fall into three categories:

  • Deflection programs. These focus on keeping people out of the criminal justice system to begin with. They include, for instance, dispatching more mental health professionals and fewer police officers in response to some 911 calls.
  • Diversion programs. Rather than jail people, they hook them up with addiction treatment, help finding housing or job training to deal with the cause of whatever got somebody arrested.
  • Recidivism reduction. They help people expunge their municipal records and make sure that they are able to find housing once they’ve been released.

Some cities, like New York, have experimented with sending text messages to defendants reminding them of court dates, as a replacement for traditional cash bail programs. A pilot program in Multnomah County, Oregon, saved the county more than $1 million over eight months. Both New York and Multnomah County saw more people showing up on their court dates as a result.

The commission heard from a nonprofit in Atlanta that partnered with the city’s 311 program to dispatch a team of community responders for calls related to substance abuse, mental illness or extreme poverty.

That Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative sends out residents in a community to help when people are behaving erratically, blocking streets, defecating in public or stealing basic essentials like food or baby formula.

Instead of sending a police officer to arrest the person and send them through a criminal justice system that may only worsen the problem, the community responders come with training in conflict resolution and can help connect people with shelters, food banks and community mental health centers.

“Oftentimes, people are experiencing a crisis of poverty,” said Moki Macias, the executive director of the Atlanta program. “Many times it’s just a human interaction and really connecting people to resources and care.”

Macias said that kind of program relies on a robust social safety net. If a city does not have public restrooms, walk-in services or safe places to shelter during the day and at night, then the community responders can’t deliver much help.

The other presentations have included a crisis intervention program through the Kansas City Police Department and a possible “homeless court” program that would help unhoused people clear their warrants without the threat of jail time.

Staudt criticized the jail needs assessment for recommending an increase in jail beds as a way to prevent crime and for not exploring the benefits of reducing incarceration.

“When we use incarceration, even for short periods of time, we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said during her presentation. “Municipal courts have an opportunity to be leaders and to say, ‘Actually, almost our whole population of people moving through through our courts are probably better served by a noncriminalized approach than by a criminalized one.’”

What happens next?

The commission started out with the job of recommending the size of a new Kansas City municipal jail.

But after a few meetings, the commission members shifted to looking at ways to avoid locking up so many people. The scope and cost of those recommendations will be sent to the City Council.

Kansas City withdrew from negotiations with Jackson County to share the cost of a new county detention center. Now, the city is on track to construct its own municipal jail.

Mayor Quinton Lucas told the Jackson County Legislature in a letter that he hopes to have an initial plan by January 2024.

In the meantime, Cook, from Decarcerate KC, hopes that the city can keep its focus on solutions to crime that may lie outside the criminal justice system.

“We want to keep those alternatives at the center,” Cook said, “instead of locking people up in the same status quo that we’ve been forced to think is the only way.”

This article first appeared on The Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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