Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Midland Sheriff's Captain: "Cite and summons" for small offenses would reduce jail overcrowding

Another Texas county struggling with jail overcrowding seeks solutions besides jail expansion, but local sheriffs don't always seem to be offering commissioners courts any other options - they'd get more ideas if they cast their net a little wider. In Midland County, says the Reporter-Telegram's Colin Guy ("Jail story for Sunday," June 21 - odd title, huh? Anybody know if it's in the paper version, or is this a goof?), commissioners are considering a 400-bed jail expansion being promoted by the Sheriff. The Sheriff's Captain who runs the jail, though sees a different solution: Arrest fewer people.
The amount of overcrowding could be reduced, [Captain Richard] Sexton said, if Midland Police Department officers were willing to issue a "cite and summons" more frequently for minor offenses, as opposed to arresting individuals and bringing them to the jail.

"We're seeing their arrests growing by leaps and bounds for everything," Sexton said. "It takes just as much time to book them and get rid of them (for misdemeanors) as it does a murderer."

Bingo. It costs time and money not only to book them, but to house them, feed them and provide healthcare once they're arrested, especially when people can't make bail. Like San Angelo, whose jail problems I wrote about on Sunday, much of Midland's overincarceration problem stems from higher-than-average pretrial detention of low-level offenders: 68% of those in Midland's jail are awaiting trial compared to 50% statewide. (Not too many years ago the statewide average was 30%.)

The biggest disparity is among low-level offenders. The ratio of misdemeanants awaiting trial to total inmates in the Midland jail is 40% higher than the state average; the ratio of state jail inmates awaiting trial to the total is more than double the state average. In other words, misdemeanor and low-level offenders are taking up jail space awaiting trial in Midland at a greater rate than elsewhere in the state. See the latest county-level numbers (pdf) for yourself.

Sheriff Gary Painter tells the commissioners court he needs 400 beds to continue his current practices. They could spend that money, or they could join other Texas counties in
trying some new practices.

Commissioners have an incentive to look for more options. The article reports some of them are cautious because neighboring Reeves County recently got burned on an entrepeneurial jail expansion scheme. Reported Guy:

According to a press release from Fitch Ratings, a bond rating agency, Reeves County had its bond rating lowered from BB to CCC in 2003 on the $89 million of bonds, or certificates of participation, used to finance the Reeves County Detention Trust Center. The facility, which was expected to be filled with prisoners supplied by the FBP and the US Marshal's Service, had room for approximately 3,000 beds after an expansion in 2001, but had difficulty acquiring enough inmates to generate sufficient revenue to meet its debt obligation, which was to be paid by a PFC established by the county.

"While discussions with (the FBP) are ongoing, the continuing delay causes Fitch to be skeptical that the prior relationship between (the Reeves County Detention Trust Center) and (the FBP) will resume anytime soon, and the positive nature of that relationship was a key rating factor," Fitch Ratings officials indicated in the press release.

The county hired Randy DeLay, brother of Rep. Tom DeLay, to lobby the FBP to place prisoners in the detention center but his efforts were unsuccessful. Because the county had agreed to use the first two buildings in the detention center as collateral, it risked losing the entire center if it failed to make its payments. However, since then a private company hired by the county, Geo Group Inc. has helped manage the center and keep it filled with inmates. According to the Fitch Ratings Web site the bonds issued for the expansion are now rated at AAA for the long term.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Mike Bradford said the Commissioners' Court will carefully examine all the possible financial arrangements that are available to pay for a jail expansion. He said he does not disagree with Painter that a 400-bed expansion is needed, but that after looking at the costs involved "it could be that when you get the costs in, 400 beds is not reasonable."

"Reeves County built that thing with all these promises and it darn near bankrupt them and that's what we have to guard against," Bradford said.

The state prison system and Texas county jails, or many of them, are all in a similar spot: Full to the brim, and officials must decide whether to change policies or continue to pay dramatically increasing costs.

Midland, San Angelo, Tyler - that's the conservative base in this state and those local decisions may be, I think, a bellewether for what the state legislature will ultimately do. If many of the more prominent conservative counties go the route of Tyler voters, choosing smaller government and lower taxes over jail expansion, the Legislature, too, might change it's approach to stave off the looming crisis that House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden warned about last week.

Otherwise, not just the state but the counties, too, will spend billions collectively in the next few years to pay for locking more people up.


The Local Crank said...

In Johnson County where I primarily practice, the county jail (which has failed 2-3 straight state inspections) is so overcrowded that over a 100 inmates have been shipped out to jails as far away as Waco. The pittance that we are paid for court appointments (a flat rate in nearly all cases) is hardly sufficient to cover the cost of driving an hour to meet with a client, as we are mandated to do by our local indigent defense plan. The fact that Johnson County routinely and automatically refuses to set bond on felony motions to revoke/motions to adjudicate only exacerbates the over-crowding.

Mycos said...

If there ever was a recipe for human-rights abuses coupled with financial sleaze, it has to be mixing Tom DeLays brother and a situation wherein profits are dependant on # of bodies imprisoned eg. "had difficulty acquiring enough inmates to generate sufficient revenue to meet its debt obligation".
On the very face of it, this is a disaster in the making.
As a Canadian, I see this all happening in an area described as "the most reliably conservative in Texas" as nothing short of just another way of saying "Hell".