Neb. county jail population high enough that some inmates may need to be transferred to other counties
The average Lancaster County Jail population for this year's first quarter was 642, compared with 565 during the same three month timeframe last year
By Margaret Reist
Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.
LANCASTER, Neb. — The Lancaster County Jail is full and officials are preparing for the possibility they'll have to transfer prisoners to other jails, a practice they haven't had to consider since they built a new jail a decade ago.
"We're going to have to do something pretty soon or we're going to find ourselves outside of jail standards," Lancaster County Corrections Director Brad Johnson told county commissioners last week.
The average jail population for the first quarter of this year was 642, compared with 565 during the same three months a year ago, according to a corrections report.
That's a 13.6% increase and puts the average jail population for that quarter at 96.6%.
The operating capacity of the jail is 665 inmates, though there is a reception unit and a 64-bed unit set aside for other uses that can be used for overflow, Johnson said. If there's no room in the general population, people stay in those areas until a bed opens up, Johnson said.
"Now, it's just kind of a flow that we've been able to manage, but I'm concerned as the summer proceeds if the pattern continues we'll lose the cushion of those other two units," he said.
The daily population changes from day to day. One day last week, it was at 675.
Corrections officials have been watching the numbers for months and worrying that the typical dip in cold weather months wasn't happening — a trend that usually helps during an upswing in warmer months.
While the average daily population did dip during some of the winter months, hitting a low of 623.4 in February, that number was 557.1 the previous February. And in March of this year, it jumped back up to 655.2.
Johnson said he's included nearly $1.1 million in his 2023-24 budget request to pay to send people to nearby county jails if the upward trend continues.
Although the budget won't be approved until fall, it's likely the county board will allow that expense because there aren't a lot of other options, said Dennis Meyer, the county's budget and fiscal officer.
Whether that will be necessary — or if it won't be enough — remains to be seen, but the county board last week also authorized Johnson to begin work to contract for an outside needs assessment of the jail.
Johnson said he'd like to see a study of the whole criminal justice system, not just the jail, because all the different parts of the system — law enforcement, courts, community corrections and probation — contribute to the jail population.
"You can look at the jail and its population and what's driving that to a degree, but this is a larger, very complex system," he said. "I think it would be a worthwhile endeavor to try and see what role each of those stakeholders have in my population. Are there ideas or suggestions we could all take a little bite out of and be in a better place?"
For instance, of trespassing cases handled by the Lancaster County public defender's office for a 15-month period beginning Jan. 1, 2022, about 53% of them ended with a jail sentence, said Public Defender Kristi Eggers.
But looking just at the jail numbers can tell part of the story.
Much of the increase in the jail's population is people arrested for felonies and awaiting trial. They make up the largest percentage of people in jail, and the number increased from 333 during the first quarter of last year to 381 during the first quarter of this year. Those awaiting trial on less-serious misdemeanors increased 10% — from 50 to 68.
Johnson said the length of time people spend in jail has also been inching up.
State laws can also impact jail population, such as a recent law designed to reduce prison overcrowding through supervised release programs.
During the first quarter of the year, 23 people spent a combined total of 355 days in jail because they violated provisions of their state-ordered supervised release, according to county corrections records.
Another 15 people had their post-release supervision revoked and were resentenced to Lancaster County Jail for a total of 3,219 days.
An additional 41 people spent a combined total of 629 days in jail because they violated county corrections programs, though had they not been in those programs they likely would have been sentenced to jail.
The amount of time people sit in jail awaiting space at the Lincoln Regional Center has decreased over the past year or so, but people awaiting placement there still waited an average of 94 days in March.
Jail overcrowding had been a problem for years before the county opened the current jail at 3801 W. O St. in 2012. The county did at least two needs assessments before deciding to build the $65 million facility.
One, in the early 2000s, recommended looking for alternatives to incarceration, and the county created its Community Corrections department in 2002, Johnson said.
By 2007, the average daily population of the jail was nearly 100 over the state-rated capacity, and jail officials had put bunk beds in some of the cells, were using other areas to house people and were spending nearly $1 million a year to send people to jails in other counties, according to Journal Star reporting at the time.
In 2008, another needs assessment made the case for a new jail, but Johnson noted today's average jail population is lower than the study anticipated it would be.
The assessment predicted that by 2020, the jail would have an average daily population of 771, though it also over-estimated what the county's population would be. Still, Johnson told the board, population growth is impacting jail population.
Corrections alternatives likely made a difference, though, he said, and he's hoping an assessment will highlight ways they could further reduce the jail population rather than begin a discussion about expanding jail capacity.
During a meeting with the county board last week to discuss the jail population, he told commissioners he wasn't trying to sound alarmist.
Board Chair Christa Yoakum said it seemed appropriate.
"It is time to sound the alarm," she said.
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