What can be done to reduce overcrowding at county jails? Quite a lot, if counties are willing to get as smart on crime as they have been tough.
Regular readers know that Texas faces a statewide overincarceration crisis, both in our prisons and in the county jails. Crime is down, but we're incarcerating more people than ever -- indeed, about one in twenty Texans is now under control of the criminal justice system, either in prison, on probation, or parole. Since the Legislature is out of session and the Governor vetoed the most important state-level reforms, I've been looking more closely this fall at what counties can do to lessen pressures on local jails, many of which are bursting at the seams.
Requests for ever-more money for jails always portray the need as self-evident, almost an inevitability -- "our population has grown," they'll say, or, "if you dont' spend the money this terrible thing (fill in with details from the latest heinous crime) will happen more often." But that's not the whole story -- many counties presently incarcerate a lot of people when there's really no need, especially while they're awaiting trial. Texas' criminal justice system is one of the largest, most lumbering, slow-to-change bureaucracies in all of state government, and upon close examination, there are a lot of things counties could do to counter the trend, if they want to. This column offers just a sampling.
I wish I were smart enough to have come up with these ideas myself, but that's not the case. Instead, these "best practices" were gleaned from my informal survey of counties in recent Grits blog posts (check out the links below) - in other words, these are the most promising ideas being kicked around by county governments across the state to reduce overincarceration pressures.
- Use pretrial screening of defendants to increase personal bond use. Right now, to my knowledge, only Harris, Travis, El Paso, Webb, and recently, Montgomery and Erath counties use such a pretrial screening service, but if judges follow screeners' recommendations, they can significantly reduce local incarceration costs.
- Use progressive sanctions instead of revocations for technical violations. A well-attended statewide conference recently schooled DAs, judges, and probation officials on the latest tools being used in this area. With luck, the state funds offered for counties that adopt progressive sanctions will entice most of the larger ones to try their hand at more innovative court models. It won't work, though, if counties don't also commit new funding for programming that makes new sanctions meaningful. (It's still cheaper than building more jail beds.)
- Increase use of early probation release to create incentives for good behavior and lower the number of people incarcerated not for new crimes, but for technical violations. In Travis County, for example, more than 63% of probationers have succeeded on probation past the minimum early release date. Getting off probation is a powerful incentive for good behavior that should be utilized to improve public safety -- instead, probation departments want probationers to stay on their rolls the full ten years to maximize income from probation fees. It doesn't have to be that way. Criminal defense attorneys and local probation departments should start recommending this option more often -- it would be up to local judges whether to grant it.
- More efficient use of forensic lab services. Texas counties tend to use forensic lab services very inefficiently in two key areas: testing drug seized from defendants, and drug testing defendants who are out on bond. In both cases, simple changes could result in big savings without reducing public safety.
- Counties that use DPS to test seized drugs should begin using private labs. They're more costly, but DPS' backlog can mean defendants will spend up to two extra months incarcerated awaiting trial. That's a lot more expensive than paying a private lab.
- Judges should stop ordering drug tests except as part of a court-ordered treatment program for bonded defendants and even probationers. If you're not treating the addiction, the only point of drug testing is increased incarceration, and when prisons are full we need to save the space for more dangerous offenders, not mere drug users.
- Create more public defenders offices, especially for misdemeanor defendants. These offices save money on indigent defense costs and help process defendants through the system more quickly, saving incarceration costs as well.
- Change outcome measures for probation officers. Make reducing the number of revocations and improving probationers' education outcomes the primary performance measures by which probation officers are evaluated on the job.
- Use probation kiosks for proven probationers. Most probationers who violate do so in the first few years. Some probation visits for nonviolent offenders could be avoided after 2-3 years using probation kiosks where probationers check in at an ATM type machine. Probation departments could still monitor the data, require some in-person check-ins, perform home visits, and use other tools to supplement the kiosks.
- Stop short-sighted rent-a-bed policies. Many Texas counties apparently fancy themselves incarceration entrepeneurs, short-sightedly renting out extra jail beds to house federal prisoners, mostly immigration-related detainees. Now, long-term contracts are forcing some counties to rent extra beds, or stop accepting non-violent arrestees.
- Harris County should quit jailing drug abusers for first possession offense. Two years ago the Texas Legislature passed HB 2668 requiring judges to order treatment and probation instead of incarceration for first-time possession offenders. Of all Texas counties, though, Harris County has extensively utilized a loophole allowing them to incarcerate state jail felons in the county jail as a condition of probation. That's entirely judges' decision, and the policy accounts for a great deal of that county's overincarceration crisis.