The probation director, in response, has proposed using electronic ankle monitors as an incarceration alternative, starting with offenders on work release who leave the jail every day to work then return again at night:
McLennan County’s burgeoning jail population often forces judges to conduct a form of mental gymnastics when deciding what punishment best suits a defendant.
Recently, 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother performed a similar exercise when considering the fate of a defendant who tested positive for cocaine and marijuana while awaiting sentencing.
“I didn’t think I could just let this guy go unscathed,” Strother said. “But I thought, ‘Do I really want to give him upfront jail time with the jail population the way it is?’ My answer was, ‘Yes, I do, because he deserves it.’ But I am going through that mental process every time because it just puts another burden on the system.”
County officials have been dealing with increases in jail inmates for some time, with the population at the McLennan County Jail on State Highway 6 reaching an all-time high of 1,090 inmates in recent weeks. That was 140 over capacity.
On Monday morning, there were 920 inmates in the Highway 6 jail and 87 inmates at the downtown jail on Columbus Avenue. The county leases the downtown jail to the private detention company, CiviGenics, but relies on it as an emergency overflow unit.
To help stave off another major construction project, which might be inevitable anyway, McLennan County officials are considering the use of ankle monitors for low-risk inmates to free up space in the county jail.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Meadows said the concept has the potential to save the county $880,000 a year by releasing inmates with the monitors instead of paying CiviGenics to keep them in the county-owned downtown jail.
Curtis Hand, director of the McLennan County Adult Probation Department, said his department is in the midst of a pilot program involving ankle monitors for felony probationers. Linked to a global positioning satellite system, the monitor tracks a defendant’s whereabouts and alerts authorities if he or she strays into forbidden areas.I'm glad folks in Waco are looking for incarceration alternatives, but personally I'm not a great fan of using GPS monitors so widely for low-level offenders, mostly because they're a lot more labor intensive than most people realize, at least if they're going to provide a real measure of added safety. Some in law enforcement consider GPS as a panacea, but I view it as a tool in the toolbox that's sort of like a router - you don't use it every day but it's occasionally useful when you need it. Only the most dangerous offenders who require the most intensive supervision justify GPS, because the extra monitoring expense can't be justified for low-level offenders.
Hand also thinks the ankle monitor system can help the jail overcrowding situation and perhaps delay another major jail construction project for a few years.
Like many other counties, excessive pretrial detention is causing McLennan's immediate problem. As of Sept. 1, 135 misdemeanants and state jail felons were incarcerated pretrial in the McLennan County jail, while they're only 87 inmates over capacity. The vast majority of these defendants will receive probation. (Indeed, offenders convicted of state jail felony drug charges MUST receive probation on the first offense.) So it makes little sense to incarcerate these folks pretrial when they're likely to get probation anyway. McLennan judges could solve the overcrowding problem overnight by giving more such low-level offenders personal bonds pending trial.
The day-reporting center modeled in Tyler may be a more practical solution for Waco's medium-term strategy to reduce jail costs.
In any event, it's good to hear of county officials discussing incarceration alternatives instead of immediately jumping to more jail building. There are many better solutions out there if the pols will look for them.
RELATED: See Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2.