Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tom Green jail overcrowding a self-inflicted wound

Like many counties across the state, Tom Green County's jail out in West Texas is overcrowded, and County Judge Mike Brown can't think of any other approach than to hang another 200-bed addition onto the local hoosgaw. They're already paying to house dozens of inmates in other counties, and Brown told the San Angelo Standard Times the cheapest solution is to build another wing on the jail. ("Jail space a growing issue," June 17). No need to ask the voters, he says, the county can borrow the money without their approval:

Brown said the trouble is that no one knows why the jail population here is so high.

County jails are meant to be holding facilities for people awaiting trial. However, some state inmates are held in the local county jail as they wait to be transferred to a state prison. The county also houses some federal inmates as a courtesy because there is a federal courthouse in San Angelo.

Brown wants to schedule a meeting with local officials from all walks of law enforcement, including judges, attorneys and adult probation officers, to discuss the problem and determine a way to relieve some of the crowding issues.

''Right now, the number-one thing is trying to identify the problem and deal with the situation we have,'' Brown said. ''If we can identify that, maybe we can get some breathing room. If we decide to do the building, we will do it right.''

The cheapest option probably would be to expand the existing jail in downtown San Angelo, he said. The jail was designed for expansion to the west.

A 200-bed expansion would cost about $12 million to $15 million, Brown said. The county would issue certificates of obligation, which are similar to bonds, that investors would buy and the county would repay. The county does not have to seek voter approval to issue the certificates.

Hmmmm, no voter approval for a $15 million incursion of debt - that's convenient. I'll bet the Sheriff in Tyler is envious. Brown's wrong though, that the crisis stems from some mysterious ineffable force to which he has no choice but to yield (as a Texas state senator brilliantly said on the Senate floor last term) like a cheerleader at a drive-in. A quick look at Tom Green's most recent jail stats clearly shows the problem: Too many low-level offenders being detained without bail awaiting trial.
That's a problem which can be fixed.
Like that cheerleader, county commissioners have the option to say "no."

Statewide over the last decade, the percentage of county jail inmates incarcerated awaiting trial increased from about 30% to 50% of total Texas jail inmates as of May 2006. Counties which have seen the greatest increases in pretrial detention nearly all are suffering from an overincarceration crisis. In Tom Green County, 71% of inmates are awaiting trial. (
County jail statistics, May 1, 2006, pdf.) Those are people who haven't yet been convicted of anything (often prosecutors see incarceration pending trial as an especially strong incentive with which to coerce plea bargains).

The easiest way for Tom Green County to reduce jail overcrowding is to let more low-risk offenders have access to personal bonds and let them out of jail awaiting trial, especially misdemeanants, but also state jail felons who mostly are accused of low-level drug possession or small-time property crimes. Statewide, state jail felons awaiting trial account for just 8% of jail inmates - in Tom Green County that figure is 21%, or 159% higher than the state average. In the case of drug offenders, these are people who were caught in possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance - less powder, for example, than is in a
Sweet & Low packet.

Judges could begin giving more personal bonds on their own immediately, if they wanted to, but to fix the problem in a systematic way the commissioners court should set up a pre-trial screening system to identify low-risk offenders who can be released on personal bond. In Houston, offenders identified as low-risk by their pre-trial screening department abscond or get into trouble while on bail at a very low rate -
about 3% according to a consultant's report (Word doc) released last year. Why not give that a shot before spending tens of millions on a new jail?

Tom Green County is also housing about 40 federal prisoners on a pay-per-bed basis. If the county let the feds house their own prisoners and reduced their ratio of pretrial detentions to the state average, they'd more than sove their short-term overincarceration problem.

In the long run, judges and probation officials could use a system of intermediate sanctions to supervise probationers instead of just revoke them, and use early release provisions to give probationers incentives for good behavior. To work best, this would require investment in additional programming for probationers, but it'd be cheaper than building ever-more jail space. If the courts are run properly, there are plenty of tools at judges' disposal to reduce county jail populations, especially if (as in Tyler) their constituents don't want to pay for a new jail.

At least some local officials already have voiced doubts about whether building another jail wing was the best idea, chief among them County Commissioner Richard Easingwood who told the Standard Times

a new jail is not a panacea for overcrowding, and he won't support spending money on one until someone proves otherwise to him. He admitted he's not well-versed on how inmates are processed, but believes the problem can be alleviated somewhat if the right minds come together.

He also wants a meeting similar to the one Brown is proposing.

Until the system is improved, filling another jail would be easy, Easingwood said.

''We do have a problem, but we need to understand how we came to this problem,'' Easingwood said. ''Do we need another district court, more district attorneys to prosecute? I just don't know. But if you just build a jail, you haven't solved the problem. If you continue to do things wrong, then you will get the wrong results.''

I'm glad somebody out there in San Angelo wants to look before they leap. From the raw numbers, there's no need to build a new jail right now. Local judges have plenty of authority to find a solution and the county commissioners court hasn't exhausted its options. The links below provide some places to start for ideas.

See also:


Anonymous said...

Hasn't ANYONE in Tom Green County heard of Sheriff Joe of Maricopa County, Arizona???? HE has the affordable, highly successful solution:

Update on Joe Arpaio





Sheriff Joe Arpaio (in Arizona) who created the "tent city jail":

He has jail meals down to 40 cents a serving and charges the inmates for them.

He stopped smoking and porno magazines in the jails. Took away their weights. Cut off all but "G" movies.

He started chain gangs so the inmates could do free work on county and city projects.

Then he started chain gangs for women so he wouldn't get sued for discrimination.

He took away cable TV ! until h e found out there was a federal court order that required cable TV for jails. So he hooked up the cable TV again only let in the Disney channel and the weather channel.

When asked why the weather channel he replied, so they will know how hot it's gonna be while they are working on my chain gangs.

He cut off coffee since it has zero nutritional value.

When the inmates complained, he told them, "This isn't the Ritz/Carlton. If you don't like it, don't come back."

He bought Newt Gingrich' lecture series on videotape that he pipes into the jails.

When asked by a reporter if he had any lecture series by a Democrat, he replied that a democratic lecture series might explain why a lot of the inmates were in his jails in the first place.

More on the Arizona Sheriff:

With temperatures being even hotter than usual in Phoenix (116 degrees just set a new record), the Associated Press reports: About 2,000 inmates living in a barbed-wire-surrounded tent encampment at the Maricopa County Jail have been given permission to strip down to their government-issued pink boxer shorts.

On Wednesday, hundreds of men wearing boxers were either curled up on their bunk beds or chatted in the tents, which reached 138 degrees inside the week before.

Many were also swathed in wet, pink towels as sweat collected on their chests and dripped down to their pink socks.

"It feels like we are in a furnace," said James Zanzot, an inmate who has lived in the! tents for 1 year . "It's inhumane."

Joe Arpaio, the tough-guy sheriff who created the tent city and long ago started making his prisoners wear pink, and eat bologna sandwiches, is not one bit sympathetic He said Wednesday that he told all of the inmates: "It's 120 degrees in Iraq and our soldiers are living in tents too, and they have to wear full battle gear, but they didn't commit any crimes, so shut your damned mouths!"

Way to go, Sheriff! Maybe if all prisons were like this one there would be a lot less crime and/or repeat offenders. Criminals should be punished for their crimes - not live in luxury until it's time for their parole, only to go out and commit another crime so they can get back in to live on taxpayers money and enjoy things taxpayers can't afford to have for themselves.

If you agree, pass this on. If not, just delete! it.

Sheriff Joe was just reelected Sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona.


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Anonymous said...

Yeah, and everyone here in Maricopa
County knows there's no crime as a result, right?


Arpaio is just a blowhard. Sounds good on a TV sound bite, though. What they don't tell you is that it's dead easy to smuggle contraband in and out of the tent city - how simple is it to throw dope over a fence? Or weapons. It's REALLY stupid but most folks don't understand. There are reasons prisons have walls.

Anonymous said...

With all your new laws, that you seem to need and your blatent disrespect for the constitution what are your judges and laws gonna do when you can't get anyone to fight your wars for you. This country is so strict that few men find a reason to rally for the cause. The problem is drug laws, MADD, wackenhut, judges with no understanding.

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