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.
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.
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.