The Austin Chronicle this week endorsed the measure, arguing "As long as we're jailing them, we should at least try to do it right." That's a faulty assumption, though -- there's no need for Travis to be jailing many of these inmates. The Chron worried that inmates presently are being housed, on contract, at the troubled privately run jail in Frio County at significant expense. That's a real concern, but not a reason to approve new bonds.
Travis officials don't deserve new jail bond authority because they haven't taken available steps to reduce overincarceration pressures short of new building. In particular, more than 60 percent of Travis jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial. Other counties have addressed this problem by boosting their use of personal bonds. That's also what Travis County should do -- it'd be a lot cheaper than building more jail space.
Right now, Travis does not comprehensively screen defendants during the pre-trial phase to identify those who are low flight risks, but if they did it would significantly affect the jail population numbers. Harris County has a fine pre-trial screening program that interviews most defendants. Though its utility is limited because some of their judges won't use the system, Harris County's pretrial detention rate is lower than Travis' -- 42.4 percent of jail inmates as compared with Travis' 60.7 percent. (See current statewide jail population report.)
If Travis County started screening inmates and releasing petty defendants on personal bond as often as in Harris (and nobody ever accused Harris County law enforcement of being soft on crime), it would lower the jail population by more than 500 inmates; since about 100 inmates are presently housed in Frio County, that simple reform could completely resolve the immediate crisis.
A decade ago, only 30 percent of inmates in county jails statewide were defendants awaiting trial, but the number shot up since then, contributing significantly to the statewide jail overcrowding mess. If Travis could reduce pretrial detention to those levels, it would free up more than 800 jail beds and solve the problem for the foreseeable future.
What's more, there's a real question whether Travis County can be counted on to fix the problem, even if voters authorize new bond money, since past jail-bonds were supposed to have already solved the capacity problem. Reported the Statesman in 2001:
With about 2,800 inmates currently in the Travis County jail, that earlier bond issue should have already fixed Travis' overcrowding problems. But here we are. So why would anyone think additional debt will be spent well? The timing, too could contribute to predictable cost overruns thanks to higher costs for building materials caused by the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There's just no guarantee Travis taxpayers, in the end, will get what we pay for.
voters approved $67.7 million in bonds to boost the jails' capacity to 3,600 by 2003. But much of that money was diverted to pay for large budget overruns on the new downtown Criminal Justice Center. Travis County
The county scrapped most of the proposed Del Valle beds, at the advice of a project manager it later sued, to make way for other jail services such as a health center. Fewer than half of the extra beds materialized. At other facilities, some beds wait empty because of a lack of guards."The issues we're talking about now are the same issues we were talking about in 1972,"
said. "There's a history of these problems." [Austin attorney Bobby] Taylor
Travis County could have fixed this problem the last time voters authorized jail bonds. Or it could spend money to improve pretrial screening of defendants to manage its jail population better. But it's premature to issue $23 million in new debt when other options exist to reduce the jail population.
Thanks to Bob for reminding me to write this.