Monday, May 15, 2006

Tyler voters: Jail bonds a "no-no"

Here's something you don't see every day: Voters rejecting new jail construction in my hometown in East Texas ("Both Smith County jail bonds fail," Tyler Morning Telegraph, May 13). Voters thought two jail-building proposals on the ballot totaling $158 million were too grandiose and expensive, plus a new satellite site was opposed by neighbors based, apparently, on largely NIMBY grounds.

This vote indicates to me that conservative voters in Deep East Texas can be convinced to prioritize their anti-tax agenda even when it affects sacred cows like criminal justice. With luck, the referendum could open the door for more effective, less expensive reforms.

The jail in Tyler faces what appears to a be more severe overincarceration problem than any Texas county except Harris. As of April 1, the jail was full with 722 inmates (pdf, 55% were awaiting trial) while Smith rented 267 jail beds in other counties, more than any other according to a monthly
state report (pdf).

I promise voters in the Rose City weren't acting on some liberal, anti-incarceration impulse by any stretch. I doubt you could find two liberals to rub together in that town if you searched all day. Instead, it's virulent anti-tax, nearly anti-government conservatives who dominate local politics - the kind of people who, like Grover Norquist, long for government so small you could drown it in a bathtub.

Among the most ideologically pure, that small-government belief system runs head on into Texas' current criminal justice policies, which have given us full
local jails, full state prisons, a new boom in taxpayer-financed public and private detention facilities, and a ubiquitous slew of local jail building proposals. A brochure promotoing the jail bonds (pdf) put out by Smith County estimated that the number of jailed inmates would increase by 2025 to more than 2,100, requiring a nearly 200% increase in total beds to house them.

It's easy for a small-government conservative to look at that proposal and rightly wonder, "Where does it end?" The expansion curve for incarceration in the jail is so steep right now - i.e., the rate at which people are being incarcerated is increasing so rapidly - that bonds for this jail expansion wouldn't be paid off before more jail building was required! To a fiscal conservative, that makes no sense.

The Tyler Telegraph filed an open records request (pdf) and discovered that many in the jail committed low-level drug offenses ("Drug offenses top problem in Smith County Jail," May 9). On the average day, says Tyler attorney Randy Gilbert, "we have as many people in jail sitting out sentences for non-violent misdemeanors as we have prisoners farmed out to other counties ... Can we look at ways to reduce that?"

Now they may have to. Judge Cynthia Kent, who opposed the bonds, told the Telegraph she and other judges were working on their own plan to reduce jail overcrowding. That's encouraging. Many solutions for jail overcrowding don't require new jail building and are well within judges' control. She and her cohorts could do a lot on their own to reduce the number of rented jail beds if they try. Here are just a few suggestions that could be implemented without reducing public safety:
  • According to the sheriff, "some people arrested on misdemeanors simply decide they cannot afford to bond out of jail so they remain jailed for the offense," reported the local paper. Smith County should create a pre-trial screening system to identify more low-level offenders who should be eligible to receive personal bonds, and judges should start granting them.
  • Smith County judges should establish a system of "progressive sanctions" to better supervise probationers and reduce revocations, especially for misdemeanants who must serve time in the county jail if revoked. State money is even available to support this idea.
  • Related: Judges should use "early release" provisions in state probation law to provide incentives for good behavior by probationers and to reduce both caseloads and revocations.
  • Many people languish in jail because their court-appointed attorney did not aggressively try to get them out. The Smith County commissioners court should create a public defenders office to pursue defendants' freedom more vigorously through the pretrial process and move cases along more quickly. (This solution is being pushed now by Court of Criminal Appeals Chief Justice Sharon Keller, who is seldom accused of being soft on crime.)
Tyler's growing at an amazing rate right now and maybe they'll need a new jail before long. Even better, though, would be to rethink criminal justice priorities in a way that maximizes public safety at a minimal cost. I'm glad some local heavyweights like Judge Kent put the kabosh on the "Build it and they will come" model the Sheriff and commissioners court settled on. They need a coherent plan for managing jail populations, not a knee-jerk reaction.

For more see Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, and Smith County's web resources on the jail proposals.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott- I'm a native Tylerite and drink coffee every morning with courthouse lawyers and judges...and I have to tell you: There is hardly a conservative in the bunch. They SAY they are but really don't have a clue what a conservative is.

Tyler actually DOESN'T need a newer/bigger jail. Instead we need to cut the incarceration rateby half. It's ridiculous to let a handful of judges who run on a "lock em up and throw away the key" platform bankrupt the county.
Thanks for your work on this issue in Texas.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thank you, and be sure to email the blog post around to your courthouse buds.

SteveHeath said...

Is Tyler area seeing a significant increase in population following Katrina?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know about Katrina refugees in Tyler, but it's had tremendous growth generally - it's halfway between Dallas and Shreveport on I-20 and sort of the legal, banking and medical center of northeast Texas, plus it always had a big oil/gas base to the economy that's diminished but still there. A lot of the more rural areas in northeast TX are depopulating, but for whatever reason a lot of those folks (plus a lot of retirees from Dallas) are moving to Tyler.

Dave said...

Actually, I believe that retirees are coming here to Tyler because of the exemplary medical facilities. Some doctors even send patients from the Dallas metroplex here for treatment.

Also, Tyler is more than just oil these days. Carrier, Trane, and Kelly Springfield have a large presence here.

As far as Katrina refugees, I cannot say as a casual observer that there has been a massive influx, but schools did report a gain in enrollment right after the storm, so I'm sure there has been some growth there.