Courts & Crime

Crowded jail relief: Remind defendants to show up in court

Just as staffs for doctors and dentists call to remind patients of appointments, callers will soon tell Johnson County, Kan., offenders of court dates.

If the defendants show up, they won't have to be hauled back to jail, which would help solve a chronic problem for the county and other jurisdictions: crowded jails and too few beds for offenders who really need to be behind bars.

Also under consideration: City and state courts each setting voluntary caps on the number of prisoners each would be able to house in the county jail, and perhaps even charging cities for going over the caps.

Both proposals are modeled on those used in a Colorado county, and Johnson County experts have been studying them as ways to control jail population.

The county's newly expanded jail has been running near its 814-inmate capacity and sometimes more as the emptied jail in Olathe gets remodeled. When it reopens in 2012, it will add 264 beds, but those can fill quickly.

It is time for a culture change in how society handles expensive jail space, said Sheriff Frank Denning.

"It invites some things we've never done before," he said. "I think we need to look at all the options."

Denning serves on the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, formed two years ago to study the entire justice system and modeled on a much older council in Jefferson County, Colo.

The Colorado group has a national reputation, and more and more counties nationwide are starting councils, said Gwyn Smith-Ingley, director of the American Jail Association.

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