Friday, October 28, 2005

Vote 'No' on Travis County Jail Bonds

The Travis County jail shouldn't be expanded until other methods have been tried for combating the current overincarceration crisis. For that reason, I'd encourage Grits readers living in Travis County, for what it's worth, to vote "No" on Bond Proposition 3 on the ballot Tuesday week.

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:
Travis County 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.

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," [Austin attorney Bobby] Taylor said. "There's a history of these problems."
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Travis County pre-trial services, an agency of the courts, screens new arrestees and makes recommendations regarding personal bond. Their screening includes interviews with arrestees and calls to contacts provided by the arrestee. The agency also runs a routine TCIC and NCIC check. Lots of people are released through this program before they hire or are appointed counsel. PTS does not interview defendants charged with serious crimes, because folks charged with, say, murder, are gonna have to pony up for pre-trial release.

Even when pre-trail services does not recommend personal bond, often a lawyer's intervention with a judge can do the trick. Pre-trial services freely shares information with lawyers, and is generally helpful even when they don't recommend personal bond.

I practice criminal defense in Travis and Hays counties. I wish Hays had Travis's program. In Hays county very few personal bonds are granted.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, that's interesting - I knew they had a pretrial screening program, but my understanding was they don't interview everybody. I've never seen detailed documentation, though, and appreciate the first-hand account.

That said, if Travis' pretrial program works so well, I wish I understood how greater than 60 percent of jail inmates could be there awaiting trial. What's more, I don't understand how much-larger Harris County (Houston) could have FEWER misdemeanants in jail awaiting trial than Travis. Those figures tell me there's more Travis' pretrial services could do to release low-level offenders on personal bond.

I'm sure Travis' pretrial screening looks good compared to rural counties where they don't do it at all, but comparing them to other large counties, it looks to me like Travis can do a lot more in this area.

Anonymous said...

I take your point.

But the county jail is the place where you wait for trial. Lots of those waiting for trial are accused of serious crimes (and therefore unlikely to recieve personal bond) and have to wait a long while because rushing to trial isn't advisable.

Most inmates awaiting trial for misdemeanors get one within 6 weeks. Most of these have no local contacts, and records. Also, Travis County holds many people for trial, misdemeanor or felony, who have parole holds and aren't eligible for release at all. Likewise probationers awaiting trial on new charges, although these can get personal bond with good facts.

I'd argue that one answer to the problem would be to provide quicker trials. You'd get hurried lawyering, but it would make it easier for the accused to agree to wait for defense and possible acquital rather than plead now for time served.

Make sure you factor in that some percentage, surely in the double digits, of PR releasees fail to appear. That helps the argument for restraint in granting bond.

And expressed as a percentage in comparison with larger counties, the higher population awaiting trial reflects a lower population serving sentences.

Do you know about Travis County's "Jail Reduction Docket"? Distressing stuff, all about processing people out for misdemeanors, making sausage. Folks get to court within about a week of arrest, and are usually offered low sentences, which, combined with the standard 2-for-1 jail credit, gets lots out that day. Lots of people plead guilty to stuff they either didn't do or which could be defended. But trials are two to three weeks away, and people want out today.

This happens at 1:30 every day, in one of the County Courts at Law. 20 to 80 inmates are brought from the jails. Many meet their lawyers for the first time in this setting. Often the lawyer has already worked out the case before the meeting the guy. Lawyers recieve the appointments two or three days ahead of the setting. Lots of lawyers attend, even without a client, because of the prospect of bench appointments.

And one last gem. Travis County pays court appointed lawyers according to a fee schedule. The schedule provides that a misdemeanor resolved with a plea pays $175. Cases resolved by dismissal pay $150. It takes alot more work to get a case dismissed than to fill out plea paperwork. Lawyers don't complain because the expected response involves paying less for pleas.

Anonymous said...

i know someone sitting in travis co jail right now.what he's being charge with was solved 5 years ago.the evidence pointing to others not him, but they picked him up last week.he has to wait two months to see a jugde so he can say to the jugde that the case has been solved so someone will look and realize they held him for two months on nothing. real smart right?