Tyler district judge Cynthia Kent is shopping a plan to reduce incarceration pressures by releasing non-violent offenders and supervising them through a "Day Reporting Center" ("Judge reacts to 'naysayers'," Tyler Morning Telegraph, May 26). There, offenders would "receive drug and alcohol treatment, job training and day labor jobs," without the county paying to house them. The plan would cost $350,000 in the first year, compared with $3 million annually the county currently pays to house offenders in rented jailspace.
Perhaps predictably, the local police chief and the Mayor accused her in the paper of being soft on crime, but Kent fired back with a hotly worded letter that the Telegraph put online (pdf). She called the Mayor's criticisms "very close to pandering" coming from a licensed attorney, especially since he hadn't seen the plan. "The proposal, which you object to sight unseen, is not a perfect solution," she wrote, "any more than building a jail bed for everyone who writes a hot check, fails to pay their child support, or using marijuana or a controlled substance." Judge Kent told the Tyler Telegraph:
"This is just a proposal and nothing is set in concrete at this time. If the commissioners approved this program, then it would be done on a case-by-case basis and not a blanket policy for these type of nonviolent offenders," she said.
Judge Kent said the first people to be considered for the program would be those jailed for nonpayment of child support.
"On April 17 there were 90 people in jail with their most serious offense being not paying their court-ordered child support. This plan is to reduce the jail population by 200 per day, and these people would be ideal candidates," she said.
But the judge also stated that each case would be reviewed carefully with the public's safety in mind.
She said those being approved for release would have to report daily to the Day Reporting Center and gain employment. Those needing counseling for alcohol of drug problems would get that help.
The next group she said would be considered would be those in jail for fraud, theft by check, forgery and credit card abuse, "even repeat offenders."
Swindle said he would not comment on Kent's letter, but said the business community of Tyler and Smith County has lost thousands of dollars to forgers, credit card abusers and those committing fraud and theft by check, and he did not want those people back on the street.
Judge Kent responded that Swindle's statement was "painting with a broad brush," adding that not all offenders would repeat their crimes.
Another worry for law enforcement officials and the mayor was whether the program's participants would follow the rules and report to the center faithfully.
"Are some of these people not going to show up? Well, yes, there will be some that don't show up, but I believe most will and the community will benefit from the program," Judge Kent said.
The judge said the program could save the county millions of dollars each year until the jail situation was remedied.
"This is up to the commissioners to decide and it is a different program than we've ever had in Smith County. But if people are too scared and they listen to the naysayers, then we just won't do it," she said.
Judge Kent invited the mayor and police chief to meet with her to discuss the program in detail so they could be better informed.
Even if voters had passed the jail bonds, Smith County would need a short-term solution until new facilities were built. Kent's plan would relieve the burden on taxpayers and maximize public safety by changing nonviolent offenders' behavior instead of keeping them "off the streets." That's better for offenders, crime victims, and for the taxpayers, too. Judge Kent deserves a lot of credit for focusing on solutions when her critics offer only complaints.