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.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."
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.
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.”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.
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.
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.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.
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.
Melanon, 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, Melanon’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.
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.