For starters, those looking to reduce jail overcrowding should look to suggestions in Grits' "best practices" post on the topic. Several of those ideas apply to Bexar County's situation.
Bexar's failure to release more offenders on personal bond awaiting trial stands out as a big subject to address. Offhand, looking at the most recent report (pdf, Dec. 1, 2005) on Bexar County's jail population, 2,326 out of 3,930 inmates, or more than 59%, were incarcerated awaiting trial -- 641 of them misdemeanants and many more non-violent, low-level felons. By contrast, in much-larger Harris County, the number of misdemeanants in the jail is just over half that figure. So Bexar's incarcerating a much larger proportion of low-level offenders before trial than its larger cousin.
That's partially because in Bexar County, unlike Harris, the pretrial services division doesn't interview defendants unless they request an appointed lawyer (see the Bexar court rules, pdf), meaning that they don't screen many people who could be eligible for pre-trial release. Personal bonds should be offered based on defendants' relative dangerousness and likelihood to abscond, not the ability to pay a bail bondsman -- only screening formally indigent defendants excludes many from possibly receiving such bonds. Granting them more broadly could significantly reduce the jail population without harming public safety.
Bexar commissioners should also consider creating a public defenders office, which would streamline everything considerably for indigent defendants and help process cases faster and more cheaply. That's something the commissioners court could do
Part of the commissioners court's frustration is that they don't control a lot of the system. Reported the Express News:
Commissioners have no authority over other elected officials, and several county offices affect who gets in and out of jail, including the sheriff, courts, pretrial services and the district attorney. Dealing with the problem is a matter of ongoing negotiations.I hope that's true because judges are critical to reducing jail overcrowding. Every one of those 641 misdemeanant defendants in the Bexar jail, for example, is there because a Bexar county judge decided to require them to pay bail instead of releasing them on personal bond. Even with more pretrial services recommendations for personal bonds, only judges could decide to do things differently.
District courts administrator Melissa Barlow Fischer said later that commissioners' remarks blindsided district judges.
"The district judges have been concentrating on jail population for the past year at the request of commissioners," Fischer said, adding that Adkisson had recently thanked them for their work. "It's a very complex issue, and we know that Commissioners Court understands that.
"We are looking forward to working with Mr. Charlton to find some answers," she added
Similarly, judges could start utilizing early probation release to reduce jail intake in the medium run. They should also quit requiring drug tests as bail conditions, since as I wrote in my "best practices" piece, "If you're not treating the addiction, the only point of drug testing is increased incarceration, and when jails are full we need to save the space for more dangerous offenders, not mere drug users." Nobody can make them do it -- Bexar judges would have to decide they wanted to reduce overcrowding and were willing to take leadership. Obviously, it's easier for judges to lock 'em up and pass on the problem to somebody else, but that's how Bexar got into this pickle.
Finally, local officials worried about overcrowded jails should show up at the Texas Legislature in 2007 to support a stronger probation system and targeted penalty reductions to reduce jail populations. In the big picture, Texas needs to focus criminal justice resources where they most benefit public safety, and quit expanding the system for expansion's sake.