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Crime and Courts

Sedgwick County Trying New Approach to Reducing Drug-Fueled Crime

Deborah Shaar
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, right, checks in with Undersheriff Brenda Dietzman who is retiring soon and her replacement, Brian White.

Sedgwick County is adding a new full-time position within the Sheriff’s Office to work on the growing problem of jail inmates who have drug or alcohol addictions.

The substance use disorder community coordinator is expected to start in January. The coordinator will be a liaison between law enforcement, the criminal justice system and community partners that provide drug treatment services.

Sheriff Jeff Easter says 73 percent of inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail have a substance abuse issue. Many of them end up back in jail because they continue to commit crimes to feed an addiction.

Easter says the new coordinator will focus on prevention and intervention to stop the jail cycle.

“If we can get to them after they had a brush with the law and change that behavior, I think it’s only going to be better for us as a community,” Easter says.

Easter says methamphetamine addiction driving the drug crisis and related crime increase in Sedgwick County. Opioid abuse is growing, but he says it is not yet at a crisis level here.

“Compared to the East Coast and the upper Midwest, opioids are not driving our issues, it’s methamphetamines,” he says.

The substance abuse coordinator will develop a strategic plan, set goals and expectations based on information from Easter and a committee of stakeholders that has been studying the issue for the past two years.

Easter says the coordinator will bring together existing community resources and work toward adding new treatment programs as needed.

“Our treatment facilities are very fragmented. They don’t really talk to each other too much, no one in the community really knows who to go to and then of course, you have the insurance/non-insurance issue,” Easter says.

The substance abuse coordinator will work closely with a new behavioral health community collaborator at Sedgwick County’s Comcare. Both positions were included in the 2019 budget approved by county commissioners in August.

Comcare officials say by 2019, there will be a 15 percent increase in the number of Comcare responses to assist law enforcement officers with individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Easter says mental health and substance abuse issues are intertwined, and it’s time to address the problems with a new lens.

“We’ve been arresting since the 1980s. Our prisons are overcrowded, our jails are overcrowded," he says. "But we are still continuously having crime problems and we are not addressing the real problem, which is substance abuse and mental health."

The Sedgwick County Jail can hold 1,158 inmates. Easter says the average daily population hovers around 1,400. The county spends $35 per day per inmate for out-of-county housing.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.