Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Judge Sam Biscoe on Jail Expansion

I sent him my post from last Thursday questioning the wisdom of the Travis County Jail expansion, and Judge Sam Biscoe responded. I appreciate that, and I append his comments in full, here. I still don't think the county's done enough to find alternatives to incarceration, in particular related to probation length and conditions. But I'll respond more fully later, and for now let readers see Judge Biscoe's take on how we got in this mess:

11/2; 5:31 p.m.
Mr. Henson, thank you for emailing  me your comments.  I will make a few additional points that you may find interesting and important.

First, more than 12 years ago the Texas Commission on Jail Standards authorized Travis County to use about 1200 beds in excess of total design capacity. We call these "variance beds." The Commission is authorized to grant such permission; it is also authorized to take it away. Over the past few years, Travis County has returned more than one- half of these beds, but still uses 575. Two years ago, the Commission informed us that it wanted a plan from us to return the rest of the variance beds. It did not give us a time- table.

A year ago, the Commission took back Bexar County's variance beds, effective that same day, after concluding that Bexas County was not doing enough or moving fast enough.

The law is clear that the Commission has the authority to de-authorized use of the 575 variance beds in Travis County. And after 12 years, it is difficult for us to argue that we were not given sufficient time to prepare to function without them.

Unfortunately, up until two years ago, variance beds were not on anybody's radar. With the appointment of a new Executive Director (Terry Julian for Jack Crump) and a change in the composition of the Jail Standards Commission itself, however, the decision was made to cancel use of variance beds statewide, and all counties, including Travis, were put on notice. The threshhold question for Travis County is, how much longer will the Commission authorize us to use the 575 variance beds?

It will take us two years to get the money, design and build 575 beds. If the Commission authorizes use of variances beds for two more years or less, our hands are tied. It is under these circumstances that I am willing to consider the issuance of Certificants of Obligation for the 575 beds.

Since the CJC project, state law has authorized "design/build" contracts, in which a private sector contractor is paid an agreed upon total price after completion of constuction of a particular project.

Second, you and I are in complete agreement on the importance of alternatives to incarceration. Indeed, we have been working on innovative programs for more than two years. As a result, today there are 2450 inmates in our custody; whereas, in 2002, there were 2800. We are taking advantage of every opportunity to exhance and expand these programs, with an eye toward saving county jail beds for inmates who
must be confined and assisting those who can be salvaged.

Unfortunately, the new beds under discussion contain very few additional beds. Almost all of them are replacement beds. Here's the explanation: in addition to the 575 variance beds, another 888 new beds are to replace beds that are in "poor" condition. Thus, construction of a total of 1463 beds without a net gain of a single bed. The 888 old beds do not have to be replaced, but something must be done to address life and safety issues, which will cost a substantial amount periodically and requires the continued use of an old and inefficient system. These old beds were called to our attention during the past 12 months as part of a jail conditions study.

In my view, we should appoint a citizens advisory committee to help us review and assess the need and determine the best solution to recommend to taxpayers.


adamrice said...

Your formatting on that letter makes it pretty hard to read.

Anonymous said...

ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ Sam biscoe needs to be replaced. He is tired, and shows the lack of creativity to find solutions for this issue.