Vera Institute report on Douglas County jail spotlights racial disparities, charges driving incarceration

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Almost one out of every three Black men ages 25-54 living in Douglas County were booked into the jail between 2017 and 2021. 

Among Douglas County residents in the same age group, 11.4% of Black women, about one in six Latino men (16.2%), and 7.9% of Native American women were booked into the jail during that time frame. 

These numbers are among findings in a recently completed study by the Vera Institute of Justice examining incarceration in Douglas County.


For these statistics, researchers looked at the numbers of individuals with Douglas County addresses booked into the jail — 6,264 individuals, or 60% of all people booked during that time span — compared to 2019 census population totals for the county. 

“The disparities in jail admissions suggest that law enforcement officers are more heavily policing and/or more frequently deciding to make arrests when interacting with Black people relative to the general population,” the Vera Institute report states. 

The data tracks with previous studies and reports, including one by Matt Cravens, senior data analyst for Douglas County, which found that Black people are incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white people in the county. 

And a law enforcement contact study released earlier this year determined that Black drivers who are residents of Douglas County were stopped 2.73 times more than would have been expected given the population, and people of color are nearly twice as likely as white people to be searched in Douglas County.

Vera Institute of Justice

Looking at the overall county population ages 25-54, about 12% of men and 5.8% of women were booked into the jail from 2017-2021, the Vera Institute determined. 

Women constituted 27% of bookings into the jail during that time frame, according to the report. 

“From 2000 to 2019, the women’s incarceration rate in Douglas County almost tripled, from 29 to 84 women in jail for every 100,000 working-age residents,” the report states.

Charges driving incarceration

The study — by researchers Bea Halbach-Singh, Sarah Minion, Jennifer Peirce, Sandhya Kajeepeta, Jason Q. Ng and Jasmine Heiss — established a method to determine the top charge on each booking. For instance, if someone was booked for criminal damage to property and failure to appear in court, criminal damage would be the top charge. 

Examining the top charges, researchers found that most bookings into the jail are for minor, nonviolent charges, including charges related to substance use, violations of supervision or probation conditions, and poverty.

Failure to appear in court — FTA — constituted about a quarter (24.2%) of total pretrial bookings.  

Overall, 40% of bookings in which FTA was the top charge “were classified as traffic cases from either municipal or district court – and in over a third of those cases, the people jailed lived in another county,” according to the report. 

Vera Institute of Justice

Violent offenses were the top charge for 31.6% of pretrial bed-days (as defined in the report, “each day that a person spends in jail, or a fraction of a day for people who are released the same day as they are booked into jail”). 

However, another 31.5% of bed-days were for failures to appear (17.1%), public administration offenses (7.9% — charges such as interference with a law enforcement officer, violation of a protective order and violating the offender registration act), and drug possession (6.5%). 

Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera study also examined how long people were held in jail without controlling for the severity of their charges. 

The data showed that Black people were least often released from jail within 24 hours of being booked compared to other racial groups — 57%, compared to 65% of white people. 

However, Cravens’ report earlier this year found that when controlling for other variables, Black people booked with Douglas County District Court cases stay 26% longer and Native American people booked with District Court cases stay 37% longer than white people, on average. 

Vera Institute of Justice

There is also a number of people who are booked into the jail frequently:

“A small subset of people (581) are cycling in and out of the jail repeatedly (six or more times), which contributes significantly to admissions and bed-days,” the report states. “These individuals are booked primarily on administrative charges related to civil issues and/or alleged nonperson, nonviolent offenses, and their frequent interaction with the criminal legal system indicates there are likely underlying needs that continue to go unaddressed.” 


Researchers provided the county several recommendations in their report and during their Dec. 13 presentation to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Some of them are already in progress, such as a self-help center at the Douglas County District Court, and expansion of non-law enforcement teams that are equipped to handle behavioral health crises.

The report also provides its recommendations summarized by decision point — pre-arrest, pre-charging, bail setting, failures to appear and failures to pay, probation and sentencing.

Here are a just few recommendations from the report: 

• Citation policy: “The Sheriff and Chiefs should develop written department policies requiring their officers to issue notices to appear and/or citations in all eligible cases where there is no identifiable imminent threat to another person or people, and make the policy uniform across departments. Implementation should be monitored and examined for any unintended disparities that may persist.”

• Clarify summons forms: “The Courts should redesign their summons forms to ensure they are clear and user-friendly. Jurisdictions that have redesigned court summons paperwork to be more accessible and implemented text message reminders for court dates decreased their FTA rate by 36 percent.”

• Review fee revenue: ”Investigate the percent of the Lawrence and Douglas (County) budgets that are derived from fines, fees, and costs and identify alternative budgetary strategies where necessary to avoid misaligned incentives.”

• Court hours: “Expand court hours for both district and municipal courts so that people who work or have caregiver responsibilities can appear either in the evenings or on weekends.”

• Rethink hallucinogens: “40 percent of pretrial drug possession admissions were for misdemeanor charges, primarily for possession of a hallucinogenic drug, followed by drug paraphernalia. A large body of research has emerged around the use of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychoactive substances, which have been used both medicinally and ceremonially for thousands of years and are not considered addictive. Not only do psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) have very low levels of toxicity, but epidemiological studies have also shown lower rates of mental health disorders and suicide among people who have used them. … Pass local ordinances decriminalizing personal drug possession, and invest in accurate drug education and safety-planning. Alternatively, develop local law enforcement policies deprioritizing arrest and enforcement for psychoactive substances.”

The full report and presentation to the CJCC are below. 


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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Vera Institute report on Douglas County jail spotlights racial disparities, charges driving incarceration

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Almost one out of every three Black men ages 25-54 living in Douglas County were booked into the jail between 2017 and 2021. 
That number is among findings in a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice examining incarceration here.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times

‘This really smacks of harassment’: Study showing disparities in law enforcement prompts Lawrence community members to respond

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Researchers concluded that there is not widespread bias-based policing in Douglas County, but each law enforcement agency has areas of racial disparity and concern. Members of the Lawrence community have offered some feedback on how they can begin to improve.


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