Douglas County should continue to look to expand diversion programs for nonviolent felony offenders as an alternative to incarceration, especially as the county weighs its options for jail expansion.

A new American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas report concludes that Kansas county prosecutors on average use diversion at a rate of 5 percent of felony cases compared with a national average of 9 percent. Douglas County’s felony diversion rate is 5.6 percent. At 9 percent, approximately 17 more inmates would be on diversion, saving the county approximately $155,000 per year, the ACLU estimated.

The ACLU report, released Wednesday, said county prosecutors too often reject diversion even “in cases where it would be appropriate and beneficial to both the offender and the community.”

The report said “The underuse of diversion is crippling criminal justice in Kansas.”

But Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson called the ACLU report politically motivated and said it ignores key factors such as state sentencing guidelines. Branson also said many felony crimes are not appropriate for diversions. Diverting criminals charged with aggravated battery causing great bodily harm or high-quantity drug dealers, to name a few, “pose serious public health and safety issues,” Branson said.

Despite the concerns he highlighted, Branson said his office plans to launch a new diversion program next year that aims to keep eight to 12 female, nonviolent repeat offenders out of the county jail.

Such programs seem critical as the county looks to address its jail population, which has increased dramatically in recent years even as arrests have decreased.

In 2010, Douglas County’s annual report from the sheriff’s office showed 5,952 people were booked into the county jail, giving the jail an average daily population of 141 inmates, well below the 187-bed capacity. The average daily population remained stable until 2014, when it increased to 171 inmates despite only 5,880 bookings. Last year, bookings were just 5,329, but the average daily population was 238.

Because the jail is over capacity, Douglas County spent more than $1 million last year to house inmates at facilities in other counties. To solve the jail crowding issue, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is recommending a jail expansion that would add 150 beds and cost $46 million to build and an additional $6.3 million annually to staff. A lesser option would add 131 beds and cost $37 million.

Expansion of diversion programs alone may be inadequate to relieve the crowding pressures on the Douglas County Jail. But it is the kind of incarceration alternative that should be maximized as a means of offsetting the cost of jail expansion.

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial Board