Wednesday, October 17, 2007

County should try alternatives before more jail building

The Tyler Morning Telegraph this morning published an op ed I wrote opposing new Smith County jail bonds, but as a long letter to the editor instead of a column. See here. The crux of the argument:
If the jail problem is so bad it is worth spending $125 million to solve, voters should demand officials first use tools they already have to better manage overcrowding problems. To justify so much new borrowing, jail builders must be able to show they’ve tried everything else to solve the problem. Right now in Smith County that’s not the case.
Smith County voters will decide on November 6 whether to issue new debt to build the jail; two smaller jail proposals were rejected last year, and I'm hoping Tyler voters show the same good sense this time.

See prior related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Tyler probably needs it's own in-patient lock down substance abuse treatment center as much as a jail. Both my folks were born there, and I have many kinfolk there. Since the advent of crack, and now meth, I bet substance abuse arrests are statistically way higher than the rest of the state, on a par with the big cities.

Of course, you need a place to keep those sentenced to substance abuse treatment whilst they are waiting on a bed.

Alternatives, other than drug courts and treatment programs that are in patient, are not going to solve The Rose City's problems I am afraid. It is not a criminal justice problem, but a social problem.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They need the substance abuse treatment center MORE than they need the jail, by far. Also, Smith County's problems aren't prisoners who are "sentenced" to jail, it's mostly those in jail awaiting trial on lower-level offenses who can't make bail that have caused overcrowding.

Judge Kent would agree with you about treatment and drug courts. Drug courts were a big part of the program she proposed and that the commissioners court rejected. To me, if they're not going to do that, there's no sense building a jail.

Anonymous said...

Honest question--how would a drug court help? It seems that any court would have the same tools available to it for sentencing (or perhaps discretion) as long as there were the proper facilities to send them to.

It seems like the key is to have the officers cite instead of arrest for misdemeanors, set realistic bails to prevent warehousing prisoners prior to trial when their offenses are punishable only by probation in many cases, and have alternative low-risk or treatment facilities to send them to if convicted.

As long as the infrastructure is there, why would you need a drug court?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 7:54 - Good question! I'd argue drug courts would help in several ways.

First, they reduce recidivism so you have less crime in the long-run. That's because they give the court the tools (and hopefully access to inpatient and outpatient treatment, as needed) to manage offenders in the community instead of following traditional law enforcement's "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" approach. Repeat, low-level, drug and alcohol addicted offenders disproportionately contribute to jail overcrowding, so at some point you have to address those social problems, as the first commenter said.

Your second paragraph is spot on. You're correct that if all that infrastructure you describe were there, and its judges would use it, Tyler wouldn't need a drug court. But since it doesn't exist, and since the attitudes of local judges like Jack Skeen won't change anytime soon, perhaps creating a specialty court to handle such cases would both put them in front of a judge willing to use best practices, and also create sufficient demand to cause those services to be developed in the community when they're not now.

Bottom line: Drug courts focus intensive treatment resources and community supervision best practices to manage more offenders outside of carceral settings, facilitate re-entry, and reduce future crime. Any judge could use these tools, but most won't bother, and drug courts have been a way these techniques have been successfully piloted all over the country. best,

Anonymous said...

Why is it the County Commissioners want to spend money they don't have?

Looks like they've decided to build a jail and they're not giving up!

They can start now to do some good by implementing some of the other options available to them. They don't have to wait for a vote.

It seems to me they're being pretty stubborn. I wonder why?