Douglas County Jail Seeks Help For Overcrowding

The Douglas County Jail, shown here Sept. 3, 2019, hit a high of 1,390 people in custody in late July 2019. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

The Douglas County Jail was bursting at its seams earlier this summer, prompting a request for attorneys and judges to reduce the pressure on the county facility.

Staffing has remained a challenge, and the combination was resulting in tense situation where safety could have been placed at risk – for the public, for inmates and for corrections officials.

A reduction in the population has resolved the immediate issue, and now officials are looking at a mix of short-term and long-term solutions to avoid similarly tense situations in the future.

Michael Myers, director of Douglas County Corrections, sent a letter July 26 to criminal justice partners – including judges, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officials – asking for their assistance in managing the jail’s population, citing “historically high levels” just shy of the jail’s rated capacity of 1,452.

The letter, first reported by the Omaha World-Herald following a public records request, came to light about a month later. Myers addressed the letter at the Aug. 20 meeting of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

“July was a very challenging month,” Myers told the board.

Around the time, the jail hit a high of 1,390 people in custody. Myers told The Daily Record last week that the population dropped by around a hundred people after the letter. It’s crept up some since then, but the crisis was averted.

“It was creating worries for me and others, but we were managing,” Myers said. “The issue was more the trend. We kept getting more full and more full and more full for about an eight-week period where we went up more than 250 people. So, my concern was, if this trend continues for another week or two at that pace, we’re going to be facing some very serious decisions.”

Among those, according to the letter, was housing people in court holding areas and moving women in county corrections to a separate area of the male corrections unit and then filling the female unit with men who belong in secure custody. Doing so would be unprecedented and reflect “significant tradeoffs in risk and cost.”

Myers said he’s not sure what action resulted in the immediate drop in population. But he asked criminal justice partners to consider the following strategies:

• Increase the use of cite and release by law enforcement for non-violent defendants.

• Substitute high bond amounts for pretrial release supervision requirements, such as GPS monitoring and 24/7 sobriety tests.

• Increase the use of diversion programs and the offender work program in lieu of sitting out fines in county custody.

• Careful deliberation during the implementation of special enforcement operations.

• Speeding the resolution of cases for people detained pretrial.

• Using prudence when issuing custodial sanctions or probation violations not connected to a new violation of the law.

Myers stressed that he did not and does not want steps taken that would create a risk to public safety. However, he said he appreciates the effort from stakeholders to help cushion the blow.

“We’re looking at a double-edge sword when you talk about overcrowding and with staffing needs,” Myers said.

The department has developed a new officer mentoring program and have authorized the use of overtime for new staff training.

The next class will be reduced by two weeks, allowing for some relief for the jail’s staff that have been pulling mandatory overtime.

Myers said the county is also looking at the impact the job has on correction officer’s emotional health, hoping to mitigate the impact on their overall health, and in turn improve retention of staff.

Douglas County Corrections had 283 corrections officers in July, out of an authorized 337. In total, the department has 86% of its authorized staffing level. The next officer class begins Sept. 9.

What needs to happen, he said, is systemic issues need addressed. The county has created a committee of stakeholders to look at how to reduce the jail population.

Myers said he would like to see a new model adopted for pretrial release supervision. He plans to free up a position on his staff that will focus on work with attorneys and judges to offer more choices for supervision that would allow more people to remain in the community while mitigating the perceived risk of doing so.

The county recently held more than a thousand people awaiting trial. Identifying 10% of those defendants who could remain in the community, under a higher degree of pretrial release supervision, would “do wonders for our operation,” Myers said.

“I’m not asking for anybody to do anything that in any way presents an obvious risk or danger to anyone,” Myers said.

The population pressure on the Douglas County Jail has reduced some in recent weeks. Typically, population varies seasonally – although Myers said probation violations smooth out those seasonal variations to some degree – and summer is coming to an end.

There’s also a weekly cycle, with higher populations Monday morning following weekend arrests, and it tapers off as people go to court throughout the week.

The bottom line, Myers said, is there is not a threat to public safety from an increased risk of an escape or a similar incident. But the staffing situation at the jail is still a daily challenge.

“It may still feel like a crisis to our staff,” Myers said. “The population crisis has subsided a bit. Our staffing issues are still as prevalent as they’ve been, but we have strategies to address both sides of this coin – we just have to hope that they work.”

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