The Platte County Commissioners are discussing the need for a bigger jail. Let me explain why I do not think we need one.
Most of the detainees being held in the jail are there because they cannot afford to fork over the money needed to be freed. I recently examined the records of 21 detainees that were randomly selected from the total of 173. That is a 12% sample size. Of these 21 detainees, only two of them–or 9%–were denied bail. The rest are eligible to be released if they pay bail.
Applying the same percentage to the total population provides an estimate of 16 detainees being denied bail. So, if all the eligible detainees had the funds to post bail, the jail population could potentially be reduced from 173 detainees to 16 detainees.
How rich do the detainees need to be to buy their freedom? Bail amounts in the sample ranged from $1,500 to $150,000. Six were $5,000 or under. Six were between $5,000 and $20,000. Five were between $20,000 and $100,000. And two were over $100,000. Unless they were denied bail, I think it is safe to say there are no rich detainees being held in the Platte County Jail.
Commissioner Joe Vanover was quoted as saying “We need more space ready to put the criminals that are too dangerous to be left free in our community.” Maybe Vanover meant to say the detainees are too poor to be let free in our community. The question of whether they are a danger to the public was already answered when the bail amount was set. The detainees would be released if they posted bail, so they are not in jail to keep the community safe.
Another cause of high jail populations is the amount of time detainees spend in jail waiting for their case to be heard. Financially poor detainees who must rely on the overworked public defender system remain in jail longer. Their court hearings are often continued because their public defender is not ready to present their case. Improving the public defender system would help reduce the jail population.
The purpose of bail is to provide an incentive for those charged with crimes to appear in court when their case is called. It is not practical to release detainees without charging bail unless there is another method of ensuring they return for their court hearing. Platte County needs to be working on developing new systems and procedures to replace bail.
It is possible for jail populations to be manipulated by prosecutors and courts. This is done through court date scheduling and assigning bond amounts. I cannot say this is going on in Platte County, but it is something to consider. When there is room in the jail, a detainee will more likely be held. As a result, bigger jails still tend to fill up. Building a bigger jail is a temporary solution and is more costly to operate.
It should be noted that the sheriff, who oversees the jail, has little or no control over the size of the jail population. I think he is doing a fantastic job with the resources he is provided managing an extremely difficult task.
I suspect our Platte County Commissioners are laying the groundwork for proposing a tax increase to build a new, bigger jail. The last proposal in 2019 called for a half cent sales tax increase to build a huge $65 million jail complex. Voters soundly rejected it. Voters should reject any possible future tax to build a new jail, at least until less expensive alternatives are considered.
--David Park Platte County