County officials investigating factors behind uptick in number of women booked in Johnson County jail

There has been a trend in increased bookings of female inmates in the Johnson County Detention Center — but officials aren’t sure what’s behind it.

No one can fully explain the reasons yet, but there’s a troubling trend afoot at the Johnson County jail. For the first time in recent memory, women are being booked into detention in increasing numbers, causing a disproportionate spike in the female population.

They are staying longer, too, according to statistics kept by the county department of corrections.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden.

“It’s one of those things I wish I could explain but I can’t,” said Sheriff Calvin Hayden. But in the coming weeks, county officials are going to dive into those statistics and look for an answer.

The number of female bookings in 2018 was up 6 percent last year over the previous year, said Robert Sullivan, director of county corrections department. There were 4,822 bookings of women in 2018. The number of individual women that figure represents is smaller – 3,520 – because some are booked multiple times. But the number of individuals is also trending higher. It was 3,390 a year ago.

The types of crime women are being charged with are also changing. A five-year look at the inmate population shows that the charges against women are becoming more serious while the number booked in on less-serious municipal ordinance charges dropped precipitously.

“The biggest thing that jumped out at me is when you look at probable cause arrests,” Sullivan said. The arrests for first felony possession among women were up 54 percent from 2017.

Probable cause arrests generally track new crimes, he said. But bench warrants — the kind of arrests that happen when someone doesn’t show up for a court date — are also up 43 percent. And there was a 25 percent increase in female bookings over the previous year for probation violation.

“So you have two things going on. You have females that are getting arrested for first felony possession but then we’re finding those same individuals are cycling through the jail multiple times for things like failing to appear in court,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the average length of stay has gone up for female inmates as well. There was an almost 10 percent increase in length of stay for women from 2017 to 2018, while the average length of stay for men over the same time period got slightly shorter. Men, however, generally spent almost twice as long in jail, averaging 21.4 days in 2018.

A difficult trend to explain

The bookings for women still don’t rival those for men. There were 16,186 total bookings last year. But the increase in the numbers for women has been a difficult anomaly to explain.

“This is fascinating. There is absolutely something to this,” Sullivan said. But at least so far, he does not have a good theory on the why of it.

The drug connection is one area where Sullivan said was worth taking a deeper look at. The possession charges, plus the increase in probation bench warrants both have ties to illegal drugs. Probation violation warrants often come after someone tested positive on a drug or alcohol screening, he said.

But Sullivan said more information is needed to figure out exactly what’s going on. Opioids have not become a crisis in Johnson County, but they are always a concern, he said. Also, methamphetamine use has been increasing in past years, he said.

Women are showing up in the jail’s booking log more and more frequently.

The number of women in jail has played into an uptick in the overall jail population that’s been happening since the jail population was at a low point in 2015. The total bookings into jail hit their peak in 2009, at 17,736. The next year, the county began to implement some sentencing alternatives aimed at keeping low-risk offenders out of detention and into other programs.

Jail bookings steadily declined after that. But since 2015 they’ve been back on the rise, indicating that those programs have met their capacity. The county’s increasing population could also account for the influx of detainees.

District Attorney Steve Howe did not have a theory on why more women are going to jail. But he said the increasingly violent crimes in the county are reason for concern about the overall increase. His office filed 7 percent more cases in 2018 over the previous year for violent crimes. The number of violent crimes has gone up – and that covers everything from domestic violence through murder, he said.

There have been increases in sexual assault, for instance, Howe said. And drug deals gone wrong have also been at the root of an increase in violence, often involving guns, he said.

“As neighborhoods get older you’re going to see more crime unless you take proactive measures.”

But reasons for these increases are not always clear cut. “It’s hard to discern all the factors in play,” he said.

“The bottom line is we’re getting bigger and as you have a larger population you have a larger number of offenses.”