Overcrowding at the jail: A growing problem during the pandemic

Coronavirus in Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – It was mid-March of this year when all jury trials were suspended in Kansas due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently, some court hearings are starting to resume, but in Sedgwick County, it means the list of people who are accused of crimes and still waiting for court dates grows longer with each passing day.

Nearly 2,000 people are either sitting in jail or out on bond, arrested but awaiting their legal due process. It means the jail is full and law enforcement officials have their hands full dealing with a crowded jail.

“A lot of the jury trials that we have or the folks that are sitting here waiting for jury trials are your violent offenders,” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter.

People who are still waiting for their day in court.

“The revolving door is always a frustration for police, probably at the top of the list,” said Ramsay.

The list of people waiting for a speedy trial in Sedgwick County is quickly growing to nearly 2,000 whereas last week that number was just over 1,850.

“All of that is kind of a perfect storm that has happened in the last couple of weeks which has compounded our problems with overcrowding here,” Sheriff Easter said.

Until jury trials can reconvene, law enforcement’s hands are tied with the sheriff already housing 100 more inmates than his jail can hold.

“We have almost 100 people sitting in here for murder charges,” Sheriff Easter said.

“This is all new territory, there is not a playbook for this, we have never had anything like it before,” said Chief Gordon Ramsay. “We are just going to have to learn as we go and try and get justice for our victims.”

Sheriff Easter said some inmates are sleeping on cots. Making matters worse, the Kansas Department of Corrections has held off on taking in inmates from jail to prison to free up some space in the cells.

“There is no doubt that it adds to our population but that is not the only thing adding to our population. KDOC has shut down us being able to take people to prison that have been sentenced by a judge here in Sedgwick County and they are supposed to be sitting in one of the KDOC facilities. We have about five or 10 inmates per week that go to KDOC custody and so that has hurt us,” said Easter.

The courts have allowed low level, non-violent criminals, misdemeanors mostly, a chance to make a lower bond or be set free on their own recognizance.

“There were some first-time offenders on non-violent crimes like felony larceny, felony burglary, those types of things that were put on court services and released but nobody who had any type of crime or had a history of arrests or convictions,” Sheriff Easter said. “I am mainly concerned about our personnel and being overworked and stressed and the officer safety issues that take place inside the facility.”

Chief Ramsay is hoping the work done on the street leads to justice, even if it is delayed. 

“There are only so many jail beds, there is only so much we can do and our officers are out there working hard no matter what,” Chief Ramsay said.

Last week, the Supreme Court released guidelines allowing for the safe return to jury trials. But even with the guidance, one local judge said it could be months before trials resume.

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