Monday, October 15, 2007

Grayson may turn to Geo Group for jail expansion

Having written yesterday that Texans taxation revulsion has begun to run up against their incarceration addiction at county jails and in the state prison system, I should mention that several other small to mid-sized Texas counties considering expensive jail expansions, starting with Grayson County, a rural/suburban county on the edge of the Red River bordering Oklahoma.

In Grayson the commissioners court is considering what I think is the worst case option for taxpayers in the medium to long-run: Expanding the jail through privatization instead of voter approval. Reported the Sherman Herald Democrat ("GC jail discussed," Oct. 14):
Grayson County Commissioners Court has said it does not believe taxpayers would vote to build the jail, which could add 30 cents per $100 property valuation to tax bills. So commissioners are looking at a private company to build it, and perhaps to run it.

A $140,000 study the court commissioned recommended changes and efficiencies in the county’s criminal justice system. These improvements could significantly reduce the jail population. However, the study concluded that even if the county adopted all those suggestions, the current jail is in poor condition and the county still would need to add maximum security cells.
As in most other counties in the state with overcrowded jails, pretrial detention is the main cause of Grayson's overcrowding woes, the paper reported. "
The jail study the county commissioned says pretrial detainees (those who have not been convicted) comprise the majority of inmates in the jail at 73.2 percent."

Regular readers know that increased pretrial detention - a decision made on a case by case basis by local judges - is the main cause of local jail overcrowding in Texas, not increasing crime. In 1995, just 30.3% of Texas county jail inmates statewide were incarcerated awaiting trial. Today that figure is 51% statewide, but according to the consultant it's nearly half again higher in Grayson County.

These are people who have not yet been convicted of any crime and could be released on bail or personal bonds. Reported the paper, the consultant recommended the county "
create or increase use of citation release (also called field release), pretrial release program, electronic monitoring, day reporting program, inmate case management and a case expediter, drug court, mental health court, community service work program, in-jail work program, weekend DWI program and a re-entry program."

But really, it's simpler than that: Judges in Grayson could resolve the problem immediately by releasing lower level, nonviolent offenders from the jail. They don't need any new programs, though some of the ones suggested would be helpful; judges can already release more defendants on bail or personal bond if they choose to do so. The only people who benefit from the current approach are the bail bondsman.

I'm also pleased to notice leaders in this growing, suburbanizing county expressing more fundamental concerns about a too-high incarceration rate:
Several audience members questioned whether Grayson County has an unacceptably high percentage of its population in jail. Tim McGraw, who was county judge in 2005 when the study was commissioned, said ... one of the things that shows that is you have Collin County that has a population that’s four times the size of Grayson and has around 750-800 prisoners. We’re a fourth their size and have about 400 prisoners. I don’t think we have that many extra criminals in Grayson County.”

Although McGraw was speaking off the cuff and without notes, he did not exaggerate the statistics. In fact, Collin County’s estimated 2006 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau is about 700,000. Grayson County’s estimated 2006 population is 118,000. A check with Collin County Jail Administrator and Chief Deputy Randy Clark revealed that Collin County, which is projected to have a population of a million by 2011, just increased the size of its jail to 1,298 total beds. Friday morning’s prisoner census was 930.
Excellent points: IMO McGraw hits the nail on the head. Jail overcrowding in Grayson and most other counties is caused by local officials' decisions more often than increasing population or crime.

Finally, it's interesting to see that recent troubles at the Texas Youth Commission haven't prevented other elected officials from courting the Geo Group, which has been identified as the likely contractor if Grayson County decides to privatize the jail. Glenn Melancon, a professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, issued a handout I'll try to get ahold of that rightly criticized the idea:
Some questioned the wisdom of privatizing the jail. They said they feared a private group would be beyond public accountability. Private businesses that run prisons — particularly The Geo Group Inc. which has been mentioned as a possible firm to run the county would contract to run the jail — have come under fire recently.

Texas Youth Commission, a state agency, closed Coke County Juvenile Center in West Texas, citing squalid conditions and is conducting a criminal investigation of Geo, its operator. The state also canceled the $8 million annual contract it has held with Geo since 1996, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Melanon, in a handout at the meeting, stated that the Miami Herald reported that the state of Florida has accused Geo Group of over-billing and breaking its Sunshine (open government) Laws for not turning over audit records, lawsuit billings and court injunctions.

Tulsa County, Okla. contracted with Corrections Corporation of America to run its jail. The costs rose 42 percent from 2001 to 2005 and the county now has decided to avoid the $3.7 million budget deficit the increases created and run the jail itself, Melanon’s handout states.

Responding to jailers’ questions, Gary said that no contract could be entered with a private business unless he signed off on it.

And, he said, he wouldn’t do that unless the company agreed to hire all current jail staff at current salaries. However, he explained after further questions, a private firm would not be able to offer the state pension fund they have all paid into. It would have its own.

Others in the crowd said they concerned that when a private company needed additional workers, they would not pay enough to attract high quality professionals. Bynum said private businesses would be aware of what the labor market commanded in this area and would pay competitive wages and benefits.

The county has hired private consultant Herb Bristow of Waco to help negotiate a contract between the county and a private firm. Gary and Bynum agreed that the county cannot contract its liability for ensuring a constitutionally run jail. And Gary said that the county could still run the jail even it looked to a private company to build it.

Another aspect of private jails that worried some was the prospect it would lobby for rules that would increase jail populations to raise profit. Some questioned whether it would be more effective to spend money the jail would cost on prevention and treatment programs and the alternative strategies outlined in the study.
I've requested the consultant's report under the public information act, and will be interested in learning more about Grayson's problems and what the Waco consultant proposed. But I think it's a big mistake to hinge the county's carceral future on the Geo Group or any other private company.

To me, if a jail is needed, taxpayers should fund it and the Sheriff should operate it. But in Grayson's case the data shows there are many solutions to be tried before new jail building could be justified based on need. Rather, tuff-on-crime political calculations by local judges and prosecutors are the real cause of Grayson taxpayers spending more than $3,000 per day to rent jail cells outside the county. I disagree with the route the Grayson commissioners court is taking, but community angst should be aimed equally at those courthouse officials whose decisions actually caused the problem, not just the Sheriff and commissioners who must manage the expensive results.

RELATED: See Grits best practices for reducing jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2.

ALSO RELATED: Local jails are full and shipping prisoners elsewhere in Hays and Navarro Counties.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors and Judges have a much more difficult time getting plea bargains when suspects are out on the street!

You are correct that the over population in the Jail is not due to more crime but to the DA and Judges wanting leverage to get the guilty plea. Suspects frequently accept a plea when they are innocent just to get out of jail so they can go to work and support their family. Innocent taxpayers are punished by these tactics.

Glenn Melancon said...

Here you go.

Excerpts from Grayson Comprehensive Correctional Needs Assessment, Implications of Privatization and Implications Not Addressed by the Report
Prepared by Glenn Melancon, Ph.D.

Problem Areas Related to Overcrowding
1. Delay in Filing of Charges with District Attorney
2. Defense Attorney Representation
3. Delay in Receiving Lab Reports
4. Management of Cases
5. Preparing Paperwork for Offenders Sentenced to Prison
6. Sufficient Staff and Resources
7. Planning for Current and Future Needs
Recommendations to Address Overcrowding
1. Information Technology
2. recommended time frames for the filing of charges
3. monitor performance of appointed attorneys
4. collect and analyze data and information about lab test delays
5. improve case flow management
6. Comprehensive, participatory, long-term planning should be implemented for the Grayson County for the criminal justice system.
7. Comprehensive planning should address management information issues and needs, ensuring that sufficient hardware and software are provided to all facets of the system. Training and cross-training activities should be developed and implemented to improve the efficiency and accuracy of data entry.

Changing the Future Demand for Jail Beds (Overcrowding)
1. Increased use of citation release.
2. Pretrial Release Program
3. Electronic Monitoring
4. Day Reporting Center
5. Inmate Case Management, Case Expeditor
6. Improved Court Operations
7. Drug Court
8. Mental Health Court
9. Community Service Work Program
10. In-Jail Work Programs
11. Weekend DWI Program
12. Reentry Programming

Potential Savings of Jail Alternatives

“Conservatively assuming that the $3,266,000 would be a target goal for annual operating savings at the end of 20 years, the financial benefit to the county would be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
“. . . the one time capital savings would calculate out at approximately $13.7 million.”

Implications of Privatization of Jail Operations
1. Governments cannot contract out their liability. It's difficult for contracting jurisdictions to adequately monitor contracts. As a result there are higher rates of assaults on prison guards and higher rates of inmate unrest. For example, Dallas Morning News reported on Sunday that “Jail operator GEO’s troubles not limited to Coke County youth lockup.” (Holly Becka, Oct 7, 2007) The State of Texas has decided to cancel its contract.
2. There will no guarantee that Grayson taxpayers will not be financial liable if a private contractor fails to deliver on its promises.

a. Corrections Corporation of America 's fees for operating the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center (Tulsa, Oklahoma) increased 42 percent from 2001 to 2004. This increase eventually led to a projected $3.7 million budget deficit for Tulsa County. In 2005, the county decided it could do a better job of operating the jail and controlling costs by operating the jail itself.
b. A 2005 internal review by the Florida Department of Management Services found that CCA and the GEO Group were allowed to over bill the state nearly $13 million. In addition, the report found that the state paid CCA and the GEO Group for guards who didn't exist and let the companies avoid minimal requirements for nurses, vocational trainers and teachers.

3. Privatizing the corrections system creates perverse incentives. Since companies are paid on a per diem basis, there are incentives for private operators to increase inmates' sentences and offer fewer services to reduce recidivism.
4. Decrease in level of accountability. Sheriff must face reelection but private contractors don’t. According to the Miami News Herald, “A South Florida company hired to build a prison in Graceville and recently scolded for overbilling the state now faces allegations that it violated the Sunshine Law by withholding public records. The Geo Group Inc. -- a sprawling corporation that claims 28 percent of America's private prison market -- was accused Friday of ignoring a request for scores of documents related to its contracts with three Florida facilities, including audit records, lawsuit payments and court injunctions.”
5. According to The Corrections Yearbook, 2000, the average annual starting salary for public corrections officers was $23,002, compared to $17,628 for private prison guards. The poor pay undoubtedly contributes to the high turnover that exists in private prisons, a whopping 52.2 percent, compared to 16 percent in publicly run prisons.
Implications Not Addressed by the Report
1. The final report on stated “The consultant team presented these conclusions to the Commissioner’s Court in the summer of 2006 and there was general agreement that a replacement jail facility would be the most cost effective long -term solution for the County and the taxpayers.” Where is the cost analysis backing up this assertion?
2. Considering the implementation of some of the self-study report, what impact did the new programs actually have on rate of inmate population increase?
3. Assuming a new jail is built at the airport, what would be the new transportation costs to move the maximum security prisoners to the downtown Justice Center? Who would pay for the extra costs?
4. Assuming a new jail is built at the airport, what would be the costs to the taxpayers for relocating the Justice Center?
5. Assuming a new jail is built at the airport, what would be the impact on downtown Sherman and its economy?
6. Assuming a new jail is built at the airport, what would be the impact on the location of the Federal Court? Would moving the jail increase the possibility of losing the court to Plano?

Glenn Melancon said...

No need to wait for Jail Report. You can find it here:
Jail
Advisory Report

Anonymous said...

i have resided in Texas / grayson county for approx 5 years now and i know for a fact the detention factors within grayson county judicial system is slow! and in extreme violation os the 1 st 14th and 15 th amendment right's as well as a few other's i could cite here! seems to me texas hold's incarseree's well beyond immediate or timely manner's without charging the incarseree' or having a timely arraingment of said charges federal law states that person or persons arrested for a crime need to be charged and arrainged in 72 hours or released!with or without bond! these violations i have personaly perceived are well beyond the limits allowed by law.
having had prior experience in law enforcement and knowing a few things about (right's) given to us by federal law it has come to my attention that not only grayson county but 92% of TEXAS is guilty of violating personal rights to a fair and quick! justice in a timely mannor.