Fewer inmates charged with serious Measure 11 crimes are taking up Jackson County Jail beds, thanks to efforts to expedite their cases and send many off to state prison to serve their time.
In late March, the jail held 80 inmates facing Measure 11 charges for crimes such as murder, manslaughter, first- and second-degree assault, first- and second-degree rape and first- and second-degree robbery.
The jail now regularly holds about 60 to 65 inmates facing Measure 11 charges. The most recent count showed 63 inmates charged with Measure 11 crimes out of 275 people held at the jail, according to county officials.
"We did see a great improvement," said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert. "Almost 20 cases on average is actually quite a savings on jail beds."
Starting in April, Jackson County Circuit Court began scheduling mandatory settlement conferences about four months after defendants are arraigned on charges.
The mandatory conferences are meant to get prosecutors to make plea agreement offers within four months, rather than the year or more it typically takes to resolve Measure 11 cases through a plea agreement or trial.
The vast majority of all cases in the court system end with plea agreements and don't go to trial.
Heckert said fewer Measure 11 inmates are lingering in jail for long periods of time.
"What we've done is we've gotten rid of some of the older cases," Heckert said.
When she looked at statistics from Dec. 8 when 67 people were in jail, 36 had been in custody for three months or less. Seven had been jailed for a year or more, and three had been in jail for more than two years.
In April 2017, the Mail Tribune compiled information on Measure 11 inmates in jail and found 14 had been held there for more than a year. Wade Eugene Phillips had been jailed the longest — since November 2014.
In September of this year, Phillips pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and three counts of unlawful use of a weapon for killing his wife and shooting at other family members. He was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in prison. Heckert argued Phillips' methamphetamine-induced paranoia led to the killing, while his defense attorneys said underlying mental illness was to blame.
While the effort to move Measure 11 cases along more quickly has freed up jail beds for other types of inmates, Jackson County Sheriff's Office Corrections Division Capt. Dan Penland said the facility is still chronically short of space.
The jail regularly releases people facing lower level charges because of overcrowding.
"We don't see too big of an impact. If Measure 11 people aren't there, someone else is taking their place," Penland said.
Penland said a bigger impact came from the Sheriff's Office reopening 62 jail beds in the basement earlier this year.
Previous Sheriff Corey Falls had closed the basement beds because personnel were falling behind on training and couldn't staff the jail without working overtime.
Under current Sheriff Nathan Sickler, the Sheriff's Office filled staff vacancies and caught up on training.
With more available jail beds, the average length of stay for jailed people has ticked up from 5.73 days before the basement reopened to 6.61 days afterward, Penland said.
"It's not a huge impact, but it's better than it was," he said.
Nationally, the average length of stay in jail is 13 days.
Penland said the jail is cooperating with the court system and DA's Office to deal with the bed shortage.
"We're trying to be as efficient as we can with using those jail beds," he said.
Audit results released this year found the jail, built 36 years ago, is too small for Jackson County's population.
The audit found the county's criminal justice system is handling cases in a timely manner, and programs that offer alternatives to incarceration are in place.
However, quick jail releases mean some defendants are re-offending and losing their eligibility for programs that could help in the long run. The jail also lacks enough space for drug addiction programs and to deal with defendants who are mentally ill, the audit found.
The jail's linear layout with long hallways and cells running down one side also contributes to supervision problems, according to jail staff.
Modern jails have inmate areas clustered around a central monitoring area.
When Jackson County's Jail was built in 1981, other jails around the country were already being constructed using centralized designs.