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Jail population down; county may take outside prisoners
Mental illness issues continue to plague law enforcement
Brian Bellendir Rotary talk 2019
Sheriff Brian Bellendir speaks to the Great Bend Rotary Club, Monday at the library. - photo by Susan Thacker

Sometime early in 2017, the Barton County Jail’s population was exceeding its capacity. A year and a half later, the jail has room to spare and may soon take in prisoners from Sedgwick and Douglas counties, Sheriff Brian Bellendir said.

“One hundred and ten is our capacity,” Bellendir said when he spoke to the Great Bend Rotary Club on Monday. There was a time when the daily population ranged from 110 to 115 and the sheriff had to ask the Barton County Commission to increase the budget for housing prisoners. Costs include food, laundry, prescriptions and medical care, not to mention staff and equipment. “There’s a lot you don’t think about when running a jail,” he said.

However, the jail population at the start of this week is 84, Bellendir said. Now there are empty beds that can be used by other counties that have their own overcrowding issues. At $35 per prisoner per day, if the county takes in upwards of $100,000 in the next year, less the increased costs, Bellendir estimates a net profit of $30,000 to $40,000.

One reason that the jail population has decreased is that more cases have been deposed since Levi Morris took over as Barton County attorney late in 2018, Bellendir said.

Sheriff's duties

Bellendir was elected to his first four-year term as sheriff in 2012 and said he expects he’ll see a third term in 2020. Barton County's first sheriff was George Moses in 1874 and Bellendir is the 31st.

As an elected official, Bellendir said he answers to the voters and to the district court judges.

“My first responsibility is to serve the civil process for the district court,” Bellendir said. Since that can include serving warrants, the sheriff also has the power to make arrests. Running the jail is his second responsibility.

The county commission has no control over the sheriff’s office, except for the “power of the purse.” “They control my budget,” Bellendir said.

The Barton County Sheriff’s Office has 46 employees on its staff and a little over half of those work at the jail.

Jails and mental illness

One hot topic of late has been mental illness in the jail, Bellendir said.

“I am not (running) a correctional setting; I am (running) a county jail,” he said. If a person is exhibiting mental health issues and law enforcement is called in, that person can only be arrested if he or she has committed an actual crime. That presents an issue if the person appears to be a danger to himself or to others.

“It used to be simple to take a suicidal person or someone with a behavioral problem, arrest them into protective custody and commit them to Larned State Hospital in an hour or two,” Bellendir said. Nowadays it can take six to 10 hours to get someone committed to LSH. People how haven't committed a crime he can’t be put in jail. They may be held in the conference room, the lobby or the hospital, which takes an officer off of the streets.

Then again, if someone with a mental illness does something that leads to his or her arrest, that creates more problems – often leading to more arrests in the future that possibly could have been avoided.

“I don’t believe jail or the prison system is the place for these people,” Bellendir said. The goal should be to help keep them out of jail in the first place. For those who are arrested, someone needs to provide support and advocacy after their release.

All of that costs money. More populous areas such as Douglas County have psychiatric wards in the jails, Bellendir said. Barton County does not. “My staff are trained as law enforcement, first and foremost.”

Although law enforcement agencies have been working with The Center for Counseling and Consultation and with groups that serve clients with developmental disabilities, the problem persists.

“I believe the State wants to privatize the system,” Bellendir said, but that is not the solution he would recommend.

“Jail is no place for these people,” he said. “I believe the state has to step up – the same way we step up to build decent roads.”