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In Focus: Can Boyle and Mercer change course on incarceration? Preliminary data says peak jail population could be close to 700 by 2040

If Boyle and Mercer counties change nothing about how their criminal justice system operates, they could need a jail more than three times the size of their current facility within 20 years.

That’s according to the first batch of draft information released Friday from a $75,000 “inmate confinement and rehabilitation assessment and study” being created for the Boyle-Mercer Joint Jail Committee by consulting company Brandstetter Carroll.

“You need at least 420 beds now, right now, with what you’ve got — with the criminal justice practices you use, with the current behavioral health delivery system you’ve got, with the tools that law enforcement have to make different decisions,” said Dr. Kenneth Ray, one of the lead consultants on the study.

Ray presented some draft findings from his portion of the study to the recently created Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Friday.

“In 10 years, you’re going to need close to 503 (beds in the jail). My guess is it will be a little higher than that when we get (all the data) done,” Ray said. “And then in 2040, it’s going to be close to 700 beds.”

Ray’s preliminary projection is based on 15 years of data — around 79,000 records — on the Boyle County Detention Center’s daily population, from 2003 to 2017. Instead of looking at a common jail stat, “average daily population” (ADP), Ray’s analysis pays attention to what the jail’s peak populations have been over that 15-year period. It suggests by 2040, the jail could see a peak population of 687 inmates — if nothing changes. That big “if” is where the rest of the research Brandstetter Carroll is doing comes into play.

Ray said there are numerous potential avenues local officials can pursue to reduce the two factors that determine the jail’s population — the number of people being booked into the jail and how long they stay there.

Over the 15-year period studied, the booking rate at the jail actually declined, Ray said. But the length of time people were spending locked up went up. In 2007, about 45 percent of people booked into the jail stayed for more than three days; by 2017, that figure had risen to more than half — 52 percent.

What does that mean? In 2007, the jail held 54.5 people for every 10,000 people in Boyle and Mercer counties, Ray said. Last year, the jail was holding 71.9 people for every 10,000 in population.

“That is more than twice the national average” and is in fact one of the highest rates in the nation, Ray said. “You guys have a very high incarceration rate here, and you can see it’s gone up considerably.”

Ray said more work must be done to “tease out” what local factors may be causing the high incarceration rate. But in the initial research, his fellow consultant Dr. Allen Beck has “found a very large population” of people in the jail for whom “he can’t figure out why they’re still in jail,” he said.

“People are staying longer than we expected them to stay for the charges they are in on,” Ray said.

Rebooking after indictment

One local practice Ray said may be problematic is rebooking people who have already bonded out of jail once they are indicted. In the local system, someone might be charged and arrested, then make their bond and get released. When the charges against that person are brought to a grand jury and the person is indicted, they get arrested again, put back in the jail, and then must make bond again or sit in jail, Ray said.

“I can’t figure that one out. The reason I can’t figure it out is because if they were bonded out on the … charge for which they were indicted … and they’re doing fine and there’s no problem, why book them back in? Is there some Kentucky statute that says if they’re indicted, you must be booked back in? Probably not. No state has that,” he said. “Can you see the problem with wear and tear on the facility? Can you see the problem with the escalating risk of liability every time you book somebody back into jail? So what’s the purpose? Do you need a record or something?”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Richie Bottoms said sometimes, people are indicted for more severe charges than they were originally arrested for.

“I’m not saying that’s always the case, I’m just saying often, the indictment does not match the original charge,” Bottoms said. “It could be less or more.”

Jessica Buck, directing attorney for the Department of Public Advocacy’s Danville office, said whenever someone is indicted, “the law allows the indictment to be considered a change in circumstances, which allows the bond to be increased and they can have a warrant issued.”

“So technical legal reasons are putting them back in jail, typically not public safety reasons, right?” Ray asked.

“That’s not true,” Bottoms said. “It could be a different charge, a more serious charge, it could be a lesser charge — you just can’t make that blanket statement on it.”

Ray asked if anyone on the council knew what percentage of those rebooked after indictment were not considered a public safety risk; no one had a number to suggest. Ray said that population in the jail will be one that Beck focuses on for his portion of the study.

Crisis intervention

One option that could help reduce the number of people going into the jail is the establishment of a crisis intervention team, or CIT for short, Ray said. Such a team would be available for police to call when they encounter someone who is in need of mental health services, giving them an alternative to booking someone into the jail.

“The only tool that law enforcement has now (when someone who is mentally ill is creating a problem) is to go and deal with it the best they can, hopefully de-escalate it and if an arrest has to be made, you’ve got to make the arrest. If you make the arrest, guess what? You’ve got to go to jail,” Ray said.

Cities including Lexington and Ashland have “mobile crisis teams” that are able to take people with mental illness off of officers’ plates. Those teams get the people to a facility for evaluation and treatment, where they may remain for a few days. Those facilities potentially get the people back on medications or otherwise “tuned back up” so they can be released, all without ever entering the jail, Ray explained.

He highlighted a story shared with him from Danville police as one example of how a CIT could be helpful, which he named “The Donut Lady.”

“It’s kind of sad. It was an older lady, probably with some severe mental illness that would go into a local store and they had two-day-old donuts. She got into the habit of going in and sitting down and having a donut or two,” Ray said. “For a while, no one said anything. And then at some point, something changed.”

A manager said she would have to stop coming around and eating the donuts, he said.

“She refused to leave. Obviously, law enforcement showed up — for a 50-cent donut. Her behavior resulted in her incarceration, I’m told on a $1 bond,” he said. “While in the jail, her behavior exposed the county to enormous liability … there was problems with her, violence from her, all kinds of problems.”

Ray said there’s a large number of people in jails around the country who have health problems, including around 22 percent who suffer from a “serious mental illness.” A CIT would attempt to help those people before they land in jail, but it does take a support network to make it work: You need people to serve on the CIT; you need facilities the CIT can take people to.

That all requires funding. But the funding is potentially out there, Ray said.

“There are grants out there. They’re all over the place,” he said. “… You guys are primed for this kind of stuff and the reason you guys are primed is you guys want to solve problems. It’s very clear you want to solve problems.”

Ray said Boyle and Mercer counties have the “support and endorsement at the highest elected levels” for criminal justice reform, and their jail problem is large enough that organizations offering grants would be interested in trying to help.

Jail avoiding lawsuits

Despite crowding at the jail, Ray praised the jail’s staff for staying “off the litigation radar.”

“Excellent management” of the jail has led to mutual respect between those people who are incarcerated and the jail staff guarding them, he said.

“It’s a different kind of relationship and I think that is part of why you haven’t had a spark to light (a lawsuit),” he said.

Avoiding lawsuits helps the jail avoid being ordered by a court to make changes that would “turn the general fund budget knob and open it up,” he said.

“You guys here have done such a good job in the way in which you treat people in jail, in keeping the facility good, and in hiring staff with a heart,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about — this human-to-human stuff makes all the difference in the world.”

Jailer Barry Harmon said after the meeting that the successes identified by Ray can be attributed to training. While the Department of Corrections requires 24 hours of training annually, Boyle County deputy jailers get more than 40. That training helps deputies internalize lessons such as “you usually get back from a person what you put into a person,” he said.

Jail staff intentionally asks people confined in the jail “what is it that’s wrong and what can I do to help you?” Harmon said.

The jail also has an abnormally large number of volunteers — more volunteers than people being detained, in fact, he said. Those volunteers provide Bible studies, chapel services, addiction recovery services, GED training and more.

“That’s an excellent tool for the inmates to have besides someone with a badge on,” he said.

Responses to the data

Boyle County Attorney Lynne Dean said she found it interesting that the data compiled by Ray shows the jail population exceeding its rated capacity around 2004.

“That was before I came here and when I came, heroin was not here, so it was before heroin,” Dean said, indicating that increasing drug use might not explain the lengthy trend of increasing incarceration.

Dean said she looked into it, and discovered that the local court system was cut from having two district judges to just one in 2003, leaving one judge to handle twice the work. That could mean delays in appearing, which could mean delays in the ability to be released from jail, she said.

“I don’t think that is the one answer, but I think it is significant,” she said.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bottoms said there is an increasing number of criminal cases in the area — his caseload has increased by around 40 percent in the last few years.

“That’s just going to raise the numbers when you get more cases,” he said.

Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney said whatever the causes are determined to be, “the fact remains that we still are at 200 percent of the national average on incarceration.”

“You can’t get around that fact,” he said. “I don’t know what the causes are, but we’ve got to figure that cause out. That’s got to change.”

SO YOU KNOW

Dr. Kenneth Ray’s presentation to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was the first of several presentations that will culminate with a planned release of the draft version of Brandstetter Carroll’s “inmate confinement and rehabilitation assessment and study” in September. In August, Dr. Allen Beck is expected to present preliminary findings from his portion of the study.