Does Kansas City overuse jails? Commission looks for better solutions

As Kansas City explores constructing a new municipal jail, prison experts say the city has an opportunity to take a different approach to crime

By: - September 26, 2023 5:50 am

The Kansas City Council voted to form the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission to explore alternatives that can spare more people from the criminal justice system and steer them toward social services (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images).

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story inaccurately reflected the kind of assault cases that appear before the municipal court. The story was updated on Sept. 27 to reflect that violent charges can include cases where a person intentionally inflicted harm on someone else.

Kansas City Municipal Judge Courtney Wachal sent a letter to The Beacon on Sept. 27 about the framing of the story and requested a correction. The letter can be read here.

One of the most effective ways to make sure someone shows up at their trial is to send them a text reminder with their court date.

But instead of texting criminal defendants, Kansas City spends money every year to hold people in jail while they await trial.

Like nearly all other American cities, Kansas City holds people in jail for violating city codes — whether they’re convicted for violating a domestic violence probation or if they’re simply awaiting trial for a low-level charge.

Following a state Supreme Court rule that took effect in 2017, defendants can only be sent to jail before trial if a judge decides they pose a threat to public safety or if there is reason to believe they may not appear in court. Kansas City says it complies with this rule.

“People lose jobs, and they lose their homes and apartments and their vehicles by spending time in jail,” said Amaia Cook, who serves on the commission looking to lower the number of people locked up on minor criminal charges. “Our community members have needs, and we know that locking people up is not a way to meet those needs.”

A Kansas City commission argues for more creative solutions to reduce crime — like those court date-reminder texts — that could save taxpayers money without jailing defendants and putting people’s housing and jobs at risk by locking them up.

For someone living under a bridge or in the midst of a severe psychotic episode, people arguing for change say that jail does nothing to resolve the underlying issues. At worst, it can make the problem more severe and launch a relentless cycle of jail sentence after jail sentence. That, they say, ends up increasing crime, not reducing it.

In June, the Kansas City Council voted to form the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission to explore alternatives that can spare more people from the criminal justice system and steer them toward social services. The commission formed with support from Decarcerate KC, a group that advocates to end the city’s reliance on incarceration and policing.

Who is locked up on Kansas City jail charges?

National prison policy experts say that municipal jails are the easiest places to reform because the charges tend to stem from lower-stakes and nonviolent crime.

Kansas City has not had its own jail since 2009. Instead, the city rented out beds in the Jackson County Jail until its contract expired in 2019. Since then, people facing municipal charges or serving short jail sentences have gone to the Vernon and Johnson county jails in Missouri. The city has access to 105 beds between the two jails.

The city’s jail population is disproportionately Black — more than two-thirds of people held before and after conviction are Black, despite Black residents only making up about 27% of the city’s population.

A majority of people booked by Kansas City’s municipal court are nonviolent offenders — only 1 in 3 inmates is booked on a violent charge, often related to domestic violence.

Courtney Wachal, a Kansas City municipal judge who presides over the domestic violence docket, said those cases usually involve someone facing a new domestic violence charge while on probation. Wachal serves on the Alternatives to Incarceration Commission.

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Josh Merchant
Josh Merchant

Josh Merchant is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. They were a Fall 2021 intern, and have written stories on a range of topics, from how to help refugees in Kansas City to how employers are deciding whether or not to mandate vaccines for workers.