First she led the charge to oppose expensive jail bonds that local voters opposed. Then she put her money where her mouth was, proposing a series of important reforms aimed at solving Smith County's jail overcrowding crisis without new jail construction.
Through no fault of hers, the county commissioners court has continued to push for new jail construction, and have still not yet implemented the bulk of Judge Kent's proposals. But for those they did approve, the county has already witnessed a significant return on investment through both reduced jail populations and lower recidivism rate for those who go through the program.
Now the once-reticent commissioners plan to pony up more money for the project. As the Tyler Telegraph editorialized a couple of weeks ago ("Judge Kent's brainchild seen as major success," July 29):
Nonviolent offenders could be released and required to go to a Day Reporting Center, Judge Kent said. They could receive drug and alcohol counseling, job training and assistance in finding employment.These diversion projects have certainly helped, but Smith county commissioners still believe they must borrow an additional $99 million to build new jail space. That wouldn't be necessary if commissioners had fully funded the array of programs Judge Kent proposed in the first place. They still could - that is, if they want to avoid issuing $99 million more in debt and boosting local property taxes.
Her plan would cost an estimated $350,000 in its first year, she said, but with the county spending $3 million or more per year to house inmates in other counties, it would be a bargain.
It could serve an even more important purpose, she added.
"This interim solution will enable the commissioners to take the time to address the shortcomings of the last two jail bond proposals; that is, to look at the county's long-term needs and to develop a downtown solution that meets all of the county's needs," Judge Kent said.
A year later, the program's success could be measured not only in dollars saved, but in lives changed.
As of Friday, the Alternative Incarceration Center (AIC) program had saved the county $767,292. By the end of the fiscal year, the savings could total $1 million.
The program's director, Greg Parham, says there are two factors behind the program's success.
"One thing that has really benefited the people in the program is that while they were here, they had to report every day (at least for the first 30 days) and they had to come up with an itinerary," Parham says. "Most of these people have not every had to do that, to organize their lives. You and I wake up and think I have to do this, go there, do that. Most of these people didn't have that structure before entering the program. And this has been highly beneficial."
The second factor is the "Job Club" function of the program, which is offered through the Texas Workforce Commission.
"We've got about a 90 to 95 percent employment rate," Parham reports. "Most of those are people coming out of jail who don't have jobs to go back to. One of the really gratifying things about this position is being able to see someone so excited about getting a job. They feel a lot better about themselves."
The program participants confirm this.
William Andrew Hart, 44, was in jail on the charge of possession a controlled substance. He entered the AIC program in January.
"My success in the program is due to the staff providing me with the tools to be successful and to enjoy life for the first time in my life," Hart says.
The pilot program hit its target of 100 participants in March. It now serves 119.
Not every participant is successful, of course. Parham keeps track, and upward of 90 percent make it through the program. But when someone is returned to jail, that slot in the program is quickly filled.
Given the tremendous success of the AIC program, commissioners are right to consider expanding it with an additional $200,000 in the fiscal year 2008 budget (which would take effect Oct. 1).
RELATED: Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2.