Friday, July 06, 2007

Grits best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part Two

Twenty months ago I authored a post entitled "Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding," which to this day is one of the items most often hit via search engine from this blog.

All of those remain good ideas, but with the passage of the 80th Texas Legislature and having been tracking the issue in detail since then, I can now substantively add to those suggestions to create a "Part Two" of the list.

But first, let's look quickly at what's now Part One to see where we are:

The first suggestion about reducing pretrial detention, especially for misdemeanants and low-level non-violent felons, remains the quickest route to reducing jail overcrowding for many Texas counties, though they've received no support from the state to do so. On the other hand, the Texas Legislature approved new tools and funding for counties to implement the second and third suggestions on that list from 2005. I've seen no improvement at all on suggestions 4, 6, 7, or 8. I expect slow, steady progress creating more public defender offices (#5), especially in rural areas, but it would take local leadership for more PD offices to get started in major metropolitan counties. And in the future, the Legislature has disallowed the sneaky practice used in Harris County (#9) to incarcerate state jail felons who the Legislature wanted diverted to treatment.

Now to what's new.

Cite and Summons for Low-Level Offenses
The best short-term chance for reduction in jail populations (we'll call it #10) may be local implementation of HB 2391, discussed on Grits here. The bill would allow a citation and summons instead of arrest for low-level, non-violent offenses, particularly:
  • Marijuana possession, (up to 4 oz)
  • Criminal mischief with less than $500 damage
  • Graffiti with less than $500 damage
  • Theft by check with less than $500 stolen
  • Theft of service with less than $500 stolen
  • Driving With an Invalid License
But to fully benefit, local officials need to be planning now to implement the new law come September 1. Existing local ticket books only allow for citations for Class C misdemeanors, so they must be altered or new ticket books must be created that are acceptable to local judges and county attorneys (who prosecute misdemeanors in most of Texas).

In addition, currently only municipal courts have an intake system for cite and summons cases. To take advantage of the jail population reductions made possible by HB 2391, county courts must create an intake infrastructure for defendants to arrive and make arrangements for their case. Nobody has that infrastructure in place right now, but it's probably the best new opportunity out there for reducing jail overcrowding without reducing public safety.

Find better ways to manage and treat mentally ill defendants
A good candidate for number eleven would be finding creative ways to divert mentally ill offenders where possible from the jail to the mental health system. I recently wrote about Bexar County diverting low-level mentally ill offenders at a single "Crisis Care Center" where officers can drop them off for behavioral and medical health care and leave instead of spending hours waiting at a hospital. Another approach to the same problem using a different structure may be found in Harris County's mental health court, and also in Travis County's mental health public defender, though perhaps it's still too early yet with both those programs to measure results. Nearly every county does something different with these folks, and nobody's really handling them well. But they make up a disproportionate number of offenders and also take up a disproportionate amount of county resources.

Day reporting center in lieu of incarceration
For #12 let's look to my hometown of Tyler, where Judge Cynthia Kent pushed the county to create a "day reporting center" for low-level offenders to encourage judges to sentence them to probation instead of incarcerating them. A press release from Judge Kent last year described the idea thusly: "Nonviolent offenders who have committed a drug offense or property crime would be referred to the Day Reporting Center for supervision and rehabilitation services. They will report each morning at a designated time and remain until late in the afternoon or evening. They would spend their evenings at home, instead of in jail, but must be at the Day Reporting Center each day."

One benefit from the day reporting center is increased restitution to victims and payment of county fees when offenders can work off debts to victims and fines in lieu of jail time. That's an especially good option for folks accused of theft, non-payment of child support, and other crimes where restitution is an important component of justice.

Utilize Drug Courts
The Legislature made #13 on my list - creating more drug and special sanctions courts - a lot easier in larger counties with the passage of HB 530 requiring the use of drug courts in counties with more than 200,000 residents. That includes Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, Hidalgo, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Cameron, Nueces, Montgomery, Jefferson, Galveston, Williamson, Lubbock, Brazoria, Bell, and McLennan Counties, as of the 2000 Census. Webb County (Laredo) probably has 200,000 residents by now, and the next largest on the list is Smith (Tyler), which is growing fast and will likely soon be required under state law to implement a drug court as well.

The best part about drug courts: they don't just reduce jail and prison populations, they reduce recidivism and actually reduce long-run sources of addiction-based crime. To be effective they'll require judges and others in the system to undertake new training and be open to new ways of doing things, but all the evidence shows they can work.

Stop using jails for debt collection
Number 14 is just common sense: Don't fill the jails with people who don't need to be there, and don't jail people just because they can't pay their debts. Earlier this year, Texas police departments held a statewide warrant roundup for people with outstanding Class C misdemeanors. While the threat of incarceration gives an incentive to pay, when jails are overcrowded the result can worsen jail conditions and cost taxpayers more than they earn from the "roundup."

Make probation for low-level crimes less onerous
In some counties, particularly Harris, judges lard so many extra conditions onto probationers that many offenders prefer to accept incarceration rather than comply with probation terms. That fills the jail with people prosecutors and judges don't think need to be there, and thwarts the purpose of probation. So number #15 would be to reduce the number of punitive requirements on probationers, while reducing probation caseloads (see part one) so that probation officers can actually enforce remaining restrictions on offenders.

Right now the average number of probation conditions for most Texas probationers is in the high teens, but with caseloads often well over one hundred people per officer, it's impossible for probation departments to do anything but wait for obvious violations then revoke them. With more reasonable probation requirements, innovative techniques like probation kiosks, and increased P.O. oversight, my bet is more offenders would accept probation and be more likely to successfully complete it.

Make 'em work for it
And for number 16, let's add having low-level offenders pick up trash, clean cemeteries or perform other menial duties in lieu of carceral options. In Tarrant and a few smaller counties, hundreds of misdemeanor offenders are sentenced to do menial labor as their punishment instead of jail. There's a dispute over whether it's allowable to do that for DWI offenders (Tarrant's sentenced them thusly for 20 years, but the DA recently began refusing), but there's no question the tactic could be used successfully for other offenses. For some offenders jail doesn't mean that much; menial labor would be a more humbling and beneficial punishment.

* * *
If you live in a county where officials are proposing new jail building, I'd strongly encourage you to take these ideas, both parts one and two, to local officials and demand to know how many alternatives they've tried before spending tens of millions on bricks and mortar, especially when they probably can't staff the facilities, anyway.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and many more ways than new jail construction to solve local jail overcrowding problems.


Anonymous said...

Not putting people in prison for minor drug offenses would be a major start. Imprisoning a man who smoked a joint with a man who is a rapist is really just.

Anonymous said...

there is just one way to skin a cat, the other ways are just variations

Anonymous said...

Looks like Bexar County found a way to reduce jail overcrowding: don't arrest individuals with active warrants.

Anonymous said...