Officials at the Bexar County Commissioners Court last night were in a near panic over local jail overcrowding, but the people causing the problem - in particular local judges who refuse to give personal bonds to people charged with misdemeanors - weren't
in the room offering solutions to help solve it. According to the SA Express News ("Plans OK'd to get jail on par," June 22):
County commissioners approved a set of initiatives Thursday to immediately lower the population at the Bexar County Jail and hopefully get the jammed lockup into compliance with state regulations.
The initiatives include an incentive plan to pay court workers to find ways to lower the jail population; adding 144 beds in the men's annex; and raising two temporary buildings at the jail complex to house 96 low-risk prisoners.
Those buildings would cost about $500,000 and could be ready by mid-September, said Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight.
"As I stand before you now, the jail is overcrowded and in noncompliance (with state standards)," said county Budget Officer David Smith, who presented a number of short-, medium- and long-term options. This month the number of prisoners topped the projected figure for the year 2011.
McKnight said he was notified earlier this month that the jail was noncompliant — about the same time its population set a record high of 4,627, including those in University Hospital and those being held in other county jails. On Thursday the system had 4,485 inmates — 305 over maximum capacity.
Commissioner Paul Elizondo urged immediate action. "We're like an army unit under attack. We have to do something now," he said, adding that a new jail is not an option.
These officials' discussions ignore the main elephant in the room - Bexar County detains a higher percentage of misdemeanor defendants than any other major Texas County. Those are decisions by local judges, not the commissioners court. In other major Texas counties judges routinely make more responsible, fiscally accountable pretrial detention decisions for people who commit misdemeanors. Here's a comparison of Bexar's pretrial detention and population rates with other large counties (source):
Pretrial Misdemeanants in
Largest Texas County Jails
|County||Approx. 2000 Census||June 1 Pretrial Misdemeanor Inmates|
Of course, Dallas' figure is so low because the Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently forced them to reduce their jail population, something that may still happen in Bexar if they remain in noncompliance. But you know what? The sky didn't fall! Dallas' experience shows that many of these low-level pretrial defendants can be released on personal bond without reducing public safety (there's been no reported crime spike attributed to this population since the changes were made in February).
We're talking about misdemeanor defendants who've not yet been convicted, but cannot afford bail. Bexar's the smallest of these three large counties, but it incarcerates far and away more low-level defendants than Harris or Dallas. A few of these committed violent offenses but most did not - the bulk of the numbers come from lesser offenses like hot check writing and driving with a suspended drivers license. Reducing their number by half would still find Bexar incarcerating misdemeanants pretrial at a higher rate than Harris County, but in a single stroke would reduce the jail population to below its maximum capacity.
To do that, though, will require cooperation from local judges and the district attorney, and those voices, unfortunately, weren't
in the room last night to discuss their role in accepting their fair share of responsibility for Bexar's jail overcrowding crisis.