By Allen Houston, The Council of State Governments Justice Center
Between 2013 and 2015, the Douglas County Jail population increased by 69 percent. No one was certain why.
“It was a mystery,” said Mike Brouwer, reentry director of the Douglas County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Office. “We had a community meeting to discuss what was happening and lots of people who attended couldn’t believe that we didn’t have the data to explain why the jail population grew so significantly.”
Home to the University of Kansas, Douglas County has a population of 120,000, with the majority residing in Lawrence, the county’s largest city.
A regional psychiatric hospital had cut its number of beds in half at the same time the jail population went up, said Brouwer; there was a sense among the public that the two events must be correlated.
“Without evidence, there was no way for us to verify whether that was true or not,” he said.
The sheriff’s office was surprised at the suggestion that people with mental illnesses might be the driving factor in the jail growth, said Brouwer. They considered themselves ahead of the curve in responding to this population. Douglas County hired its first mental health staff in 2002 and added a mental health reentry case manager in 2011.
To get to the root of the jail population uptick, Douglas County officials began compiling what little data they had. At the same this was occurring, two other things happened that proved to be catalysts for stronger data collection and improved responses to people with mental illnesses.